Customer Reviews: Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles
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VINE VOICEon January 7, 2004
This thorough and well-written book gives a detailed but highly readable account of the enormously complex process whereby the Marshall Space Flight Center under the direction of Wernher von Braun developed the launch vehicles used in the Apollo program to send humans to the Moon. Based on exhaustive research and equipped with extensive bibliographic references, this book comes as close to being a definitive history of the Saturn rocket program as is ever likely to appear. Moreover, it is not simply a technical history but covers the decision-making process that lay behind the technological development, making it not just a history of hardware development but also an analysis of technical management and organization. As one reviewer said in "Air University Review" while reviewing the original edition of this book: "This volume is just one of many excellent histories produced by government and contract historians for the NASA History Office....The book is enhanced by many excellent appendixes and charts, and it has a thorough essay on sources and documentation....Author Roger Bilstein...gracefully wends his way through a maze of technical documentation to reveal the important themes of his story; rarely has such a nuts-and-bolts tale been so gracefully told." I can only add my "amen" to that assessment.
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This book is the most complete history of the Saturn launch vehicle family available. Author Roger Bilstein wrote this as an official history for NASA in the late 1970s, and it was originally published in 1980. This edition is paperbound and is published by the University Press of Florida. I was tempted to give the book five stars, but ultimately two things lowered it to four. First, the illustrations are quite poor. All are black and white and most are public domain images that are of low quality. Many are taken from much larger sources and compressed so that the legends and details are virtually or completely impossible to discern. There are many better illustrations available, and there is no reason that a modern reprint of this book should have such inferior illustrations, especially when such complex (and difficult to visualize) machinery is being discussed. The second and more minor reason for the loss of a star is due to the extremely annoying use of metric units (newtons, etc.) throughout the book, which was a misdirected Carter administration whim in vogue when this was written. The problem is not with the units themselves, but rather that all the original units the program worked with were English, and after conversion the numbers are extremely cumbersome to digest and work with: as an example I opened the text randomly to page 119 (which deals with F-1 thrust chamber and furnace brazing,) and found this example, which is typical, but not the worst: "the F-1 was designed to burn its propellants at approximately 79000 newtons per square centimeter (1150 pounds per square inch) at the injector face...." Given that virtually all other sources (and all original sources) cite English units, this is a needless complication that should have been revised.

Having noted the negatives, this book has a lot of positives: it has extremely detailed history on all the Saturn program iterations, including the often neglected Saturn 1 and 1B models. It also discusses proposed but unflown Saturn derivatives, and of course the mighty Saturn V. The book presents a background on previous programs and key personnel and developmental and design choices and rationale; the discussion of the pros and cons of cryogenic propellants in various applications is especially well written. Following this the different models of Saturn vehicle are detailed to include all stages, engines, systems, and Instrument Units (which were fairly similar throughout the program.)

There is enormous effort expended to detail the histories of the various stages and the individual histories of the individual rocket engines built. Several missions are examined in great detail, most notably AS-506, which was, of course, Apollo 11. After the discussion of the technical details of the Saturns, Bilstein presents an excellent examination of the logistics of Apollo and the management techniques used to oversee the design, construction, checkout, and launch of the vehicles. The book concludes with a treasure trove of appendices full of technical and other data, which serious space historians will find of enormous assistance.

This is overall a great book, and I recommend it highly to anyone serious about space history. It is not casual reading for most people, but is extremely well detailed, and were it not for the illustration issues (and metric units, to a lesser extent) this book would easily have been awarded five stars.
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on May 15, 2001
Being the avid manned spaceflight reader that I am, this book was a gold-mine. The history of not only the Saturn V is covered here, but also the earlier (less powerful) Saturn I and IB as well as the early proposals for other Saturn launch vehicles. Then, if that's not enough, you get stage-by-stage and engine-by-engine technical explanations along with each components' history. Marvelous! I've only been able to find this book at libraries, (unless you want to spend hundred[s] of dollars for collectable editions online) but, if you're an Apollo program or Saturn V afficienado, it's worth looking for. Highly recommended!
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on May 13, 2007
I'm an apollo nut and very much into the technical details of the program. This book is a good overview of the Saturn project and an excellent place to start if you are just beginning your adventure into history.

However I found the book to be lacking in detail when it comes to specific technological problems and how they were solved. One has to go to the more detailed sources (NASA press kits, 1st-person accounts, etc.) for the good stuff.

The book is written in dry, documentary fashion. It is factual (a NASA publication) but not an entertaining read.

Again, an excellent source for facts, figures and an complete overview of the massive project that is Saturn.
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on March 22, 2004
I recently read "Apollo: The Race to the Moon", by Charles Murray and it left me hungry for more details on the Saturn V and the challenges of developing the first stage, F-1 engines. This book definitely hits the spot and provides a lot more. The text is so historically rich you feel as if you were there along side the NASA engineers. If that's not enough you might also like "Chariots for Apollo"; it tells a very good technical story about the Lunar Module development.
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on February 24, 2004
I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Roger Bilstein as my professor. His personal enthusiasm for aerospace and history come together nicely in what is often considered to be the "offical" account of the development of the Saturn launcher that eventually placed men on the moon. This book will make clear that task was not nearly as easy as NASA made it seem. A must for anyone who wants to get beyond the astronaut books and see how the space program really worked in its glory days!
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on June 22, 2011
I've enjoyed dozens of fine books on the Apollo program. Murray's "Apollo" was my favorite, for all of its inside technical info. I had hoped this would be more of the same, including expanding on the fascinating technology of the Saturn engines, and the obstacles the engineers overcame.

Instead, it reads like a boring engineering document dump, with no narrative. I found myself skipping chunks of text, hoping to find the "interesting" stuff. It never materialized.

As a degreed engineer, I can handle geeky tech talk, and I reveled in it when fascinatingly delivered by Murray. I also enjoyed the Gene Kranz book, which gave insights (especially project management and personnel issues) I had not learned in countless other books on the topic.

Unless you are looking for dry, exhaustive archives of facts without any real context or narrative, skip this one.
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on April 28, 2016
If you are fan of the Space Race, and want to know about the Saturn 5 launch system, this is the book. Fascinating read of how they created and sent these technological behemoths to space. Not one Saturn 5 failed on the launch pad or in space. What an incredible achievement that has not been matched since then!
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on January 21, 2013
The subject is near and dear to my heart. It's awesome that this book was written before all the detail of the Saturn V legacy were forgotten to the past.

The book discusses the Saturn lineage very carefully. This is actually the meat and potatoes of the book. It is more of a family history of the Saturn rocket. Unfortunately, the actual technical descriptions are often 'dumbed down' with just a token sentence here or there to depict or describe the engineering specifics of various aspects.

The book is not a linear story of the rocket but moves back and forth through timelines in a very confusing way. The chapters of the book do not fit together and some don't even read with the same conventions as other chapters. Similar to the way a novel would read if a guest writer took charge of a single chapter in the middle of the story. This book would have been a far more impressive archive of the history of this subject if it was given to a decent editor before publishing.

And a last note has to do with the illustrations. There are dozens of republished diagrams, engineering drawings and other figures with text that are reproduced in a 3x2 inch square. I couldn't make out some of the relevant and important text in these illustrations even with a magnifying glass because the print is not fine pitch enough in the printing to reproduce these illustrations. It's almost like the publisher was trying to save paper when he printed this book and made all the illustrations tiny and therefore relegated them as irrelevant. Too bad.

I would have rated this book a three star if I didn't love the subject so much. Shame on the publisher for not making a professional effort with this book.
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on August 14, 1998
Not for the light reader. A very well done complete guide to the development of the world's most powerful launch vehicle.
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