We visited the most powerful rocket ever built -- and it was even better than we expected

It’s not every day that you get to stand next to the prodigious Saturn V rocket — the most powerful rocket ever built and NASA’s ride to the moon.

To this day, the Saturn V — and ticket into the history books during the ’60s and early ’70s — remains the only rocket capable of transporting humans beyond low-earth orbit, where the International Space Station resides. And it’s a monster.

We recently visited the never-used, ready-for-flight Saturn V that was destined to transport NASA’s Apollo 18 crew to the moon before the US government canceled the mission in 1970.

Words cannot describe the experience of standing next to one of humankind’s most impressive engineering feats. But these photos should give you an idea:

Instead of scrapping the Saturn V rocket after Apollo 18 was canceled, NASA preserved it at their Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, shown below. Check out the Saturn V rocket in the lower right.

The Saturn V was designed to fly 3 astronauts at a time. At launch, it weighed 6.54 million pounds and towered 363 feet tall -- about 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

In total, the Saturn V has 3 rocket stages and a single spacecraft, which contains a lunar and command module for the astronauts. Here, you're seeing the largest part of the rocket: the first stage. The second stage is barely visible in the back.

Jessica Orwig

The most powerful part of any Saturn V is its 5 enormous F-1 rockets, located underneath the first-stage. Upon lift-off, the engines generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust and burned a total of 500,000 pounds of fuel. For comparison, the 2 rocket boosters that launched NASA's Space Shuttles into low-earth orbit produced 1/3 the thrust.

Jessica Orwig

After travelling 42 miles skyward (for a Saturn V in flight), the first stage broke off and fell into the Atlantic Ocean. At that point, the second stage, shown here, fired its 5 J-2 engines to get the vehicle the rest of the way to space.

Jessica Orwig

The five J-2 engines (shown below) burned 2/3 as much fuel as the first stage and produced 1 million pounds of thrust (about 1/7 as much as the first stage).

Jessica Orwig

These engines burned for a total of 6 minutes, propelling the remaining rocket stages to an altitude of 109 miles.

For perspective, here's the smaller J-2 engine (left) with an F-1 engine (right). It took five of each to get the Saturn V to space, and they did it in just over 9 minutes. Most humans can't complete a mile in that amount of time.

Jessica Orwig

The first and second stages are the workhorses of the group, but it's the third stage, shown below on the right, that got astronauts into orbit around Earth and on their way to the moon. And all it needed was a single J-2 engine.

Jessica Orwig

This goes to show just how much power you need to escape Earth's gravitational pull: It takes 10 engines with a combined thrust of 6.7 million pounds to escape, but just one with 100,000 pounds of thrust to boost you toward the moon.

Jessica Orwig

After about 3 days in space, the third stage reached lunar orbit. At that point, it was over 200,000 miles from home with all its fuel spent. By that time, it was useless to the astronauts, so they discarded it. Shown here is the Apollo 17's third stage floating into space after separation.

After third stage separation, all that's left of the prodigious Saturn V are its lunar and command modules inside the spacecraft. For scale, you can see a person standing between the third stage (left) and spacecraft (right) in this photo.

Jessica Orwig

This diagram offers an x-ray look inside the spacecraft with the lunar module at the bottom and the command module -- where astronauts spent most of their time -- at the top. (The pointed 'launch escape system' is a rocket that the astronauts would use in case something went wrong during launch. It was discarded 19 minutes after lift off.)

Here's a good look at the command module. On the left are flags of all the Apollo missions that the Saturn Vs flew:

Jessica Orwig

And for reference, here are all 13 of the Saturn V missions. Notice how the last Saturn V that flew is missing the escape launch system at top. That's because it wasn't carrying humans but rather payloads for Skylab, the first space station.

NASA has voiced plans to return to deep-space with the ultimate goal of landing humans on Mars as soon as 2033. For this mission, it will need a rocket even more powerful than the Saturn V, which is why it's currently constructing the Space Launch System (illustrated below), scheduled to fly for the first time in 2018. It will produce 20% more thrust than the Saturn V.

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