Even though we will not build new Saturn Vs, there currently exist three Saturn Vs in museums. Could any of these rockets be refitted for flight? If not, what specific component would prevent the program from going forward?

This question is meant to address the rocket itself. I understand that the VAB, crawlers, and launch infrastructure would need retrofitting as well, not to mention finding and training crews.

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    $\begingroup$ You expect a rocket stored in the open for more than two decades to be refittable for flight? See wikipedia. Only one consist of stages intended for launch. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Apr 2, 2019 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Uwe: Thank you for chiming in! I'm not expecting, I'm asking. This Mustang had been stored in the open for four and a half decades, and then was restarted recently. I'm sure that it is not a matter of simply filling up the H2, O2, and RP-1. What are the bottlenecks, and are they surmountable? As you mention, we do have a complete rocket consisting of flight stages. $\endgroup$ Apr 2, 2019 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ Won't this raise the ship of Theseus problem? If too many parts have to be replaced in order to make it functional, can we still call it the original one? If yes, even then it will be much much cheaper to design and build a completely new rocket from scratch, then to repair or rebuild the original one. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Apr 2, 2019 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Basically, other than fusion reactors and perpetual motion machines, the question of can we do it is answered by how many zeros you have in your check book. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Apr 3, 2019 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ Stephen Baxter's book "Titan" has a very similar premise, and goes over many of the problems. In the fiction, it succeeds. $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2019 at 15:36

3 Answers 3


The one at the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville has been stored outside so it wasn't in good shape.

Displayed outdoors and on its side since 1969, the rocket was exhibiting widespread paint failure, moisture infiltration, an overall accumulation of atmospheric and biological soiling, and corrosion of its complex system of metal alloys, including aluminum. Non-metal materials such as polyurethane foam, various types of plastics including Tedlar®, phenolic resin, and fiberglass composites, had significantly deteriorated. The spacecraft portion of the Saturn V display (Lunar Adapter, Service Module, Command Module and Launch Escape System) were full scale 1970s era mock-ups constructed of sheet aluminum and fiberglass. The Command Module, constructed almost completely out of plywood and fiberglass, was is very poor condition

The others have been indoors so should be a bit better. The Huntsville rocket was incomplete. It's been restored from the above condition, but that's to 'museum exhibit' state, not 'functional rocket' state.

They'd need significant amount of work to be usable again:

  • complete inspection of the metalwork, with replacement of any corroded parts. That alone is years of work. To do an inspection to the standard you want for spaceflight, you may have to disassemble most of the rocket (to make sure you get to all the corners that become inaccessible after assembly).
  • replacement of all seals and other materials that can deteriorate. This may include the wiring.
  • replacement of all the electronics
  • new turbopumps
  • new LOX tanks, maybe (LOX reacts with lots of things, there's no way to guarantee the tanks are clean)
  • the Huntsville one was missing its CM, SM an LEM, so they'd have to be built.
  • other parts may have been cannibalized, no way to know until you strip the rocket.

IOW, you're better off building new Saturn Vs.

I'm tempted to compare it to building vs restoring cars. A thorough restoration can easily take a year. Handbuilt cars are built in weeks...

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    $\begingroup$ @HappyPhantom: Is it obvious that your "inspection, repair and proper cleaning" can be done without doing that first too? There are plenty of "replacement" and "new parts" in Hobbes's list. $\endgroup$ Apr 2, 2019 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ New electronics, new guidance software and new turbopumps would require a new man rating of the rocket. But before man rating is finished, all museum Saturn V rockets are used, $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Apr 2, 2019 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm: No, I am not sure. That is why Inspection is the first step. $\endgroup$ Apr 2, 2019 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @HappyPhantom, the inspection isn't too bad -- it's basically the rocket equivalent of an aviation D-check. The problem is the repair -- for example, if one of the gyroscopes in the ST-124-M3 guidance platform has gone bad, where are you going to find a replacement? $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Apr 2, 2019 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Also worth noting that when a restored vintage car breaks down because you missed something, it doesn't disintegrate traveling on a trans-lunar trajectory with you in it. $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Apr 2, 2019 at 20:41

I carefully examined the Saturn V in Houston (in particular the instrumentation unit) few months ago. There's no way this Saturn V would fly for a couple reasons:

  1. It was stored outside and suffered lots of corrosion and damage. It was restored enough to be exhibited but the metal still has lots of corrosion covered by paint.

  2. The instrumentation unit is missing many components. In particular, I noticed it is missing the LVDC (launch vehicle digital computer), other important electronics, some large tanks, covers on much of the electronics, a lot of wiring, and various random parts. The parts that remained were very dirty and corroded and I wouldn't expect them to work.

I agree with what @Hobbes concluded, you'd be better off building a new Saturn V.


In addition to the other answers talking about the condition of the rocket itself, you have to realize it takes a lot more than just having the rocket to launch it. There is a whole mess of support infrastructure required to make the Saturn V, or any spacecraft, actually work.

Launch Center 39 hasn't been outfitted for a Saturn V since 1973 and has been reconfigured many times since. The machinery in the VAB used for prepping the Saturn V is gone; the building is being used by SpaceX now for its rockets. All the hardware in the control centers that worked with the Saturn V telemetry systems was dismantled a long time ago. You would have to rebuild the fueling systems to fill its massive tanks (not to mention, actually refind a way to get that much fuel to the launch pad). Every last one of the people who helped build it and understood how it worked are either long retired or dead. No one has even thought about launching a Saturn V since Skylab was put in orbit; the institutional knowledge at NASA on how to make it happen is forgotten.

Even if the museum pieces were flightworthy, you would have to rebuild and relearn so much of the support infrastructure and logistics that made it possible, you'd still be better off starting over with something new.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you Seth. In fact, I mention in the OP that I understand that the VAB, crawlers, and launch infrastructure would need retrofitting as well. But thank you for the details! $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2019 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @mgarey, no , but as an engineer I can tell you there is a huge difference between someone reading a 50-year old document on how something works and having someone who is actively wrist-deep in solving the challenges on a day-to-day basis. I'm sure NASA has reams of documentation on the Saturn V, but no one will understand a system that complex as well as the engineers who actually designed and built it. $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Apr 3, 2019 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ @mgarey, I didn't mean to imply there was no documentation, but after 50 years I can't imagine anyone alive knows where it all is. Important to remember, too, that the Saturn V wasn't just built by NASA. It was a joint effort between hundreds of contractors and subcontractors who each had their own process documents and schematics. Who knows where all that is, if it is even still around. Trying to piece it all together is probably a bigger effort than just ordering a BFR from SpaceX. $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Apr 3, 2019 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @mgarey Even if documents "exist" that doesn't mean they are usable. Try making sense of poor-quality microfilm copies of thousands of pages of engineering drawings, which were originally only made as a "box ticking" backup measure by the company with the lowest price, and most likely never looked at by anyone to check their quality even when they were new. It's bad enough trying to read photocopies of reports from the 1960s originally written on manual typewriters with hand-drawn graphs and diagrams! $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Apr 3, 2019 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ I was really just curious about the state of documentation on the Saturn V. To satisfy my own and others' curiosity on the subject: here here and here $\endgroup$
    – mgarey
    Apr 3, 2019 at 19:30

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