The Saturn V is an iconic rocket, and its black and white paint scheme is pretty easily recognizable to even casual space fans. And like its technological heritage, we can trace its stylistic roots to WWII Germany as well.
Before serving his key role in developing the Saturn V rocket that launched astronauts to the Moon, Wernher von Braun along with his fellow German rocket engineers developed the A-4, also known as the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei or V2 that fell on London in the closing months of the Second World War. The test versions of those rockets were painted with a large checkered pattern, not for style but for data purposes. The pattern would make it obvious if the rocket rolled in flight.
The black and white paint scheme migrated to the United State with the German rocketeers after the war ended and was featured on the rockets these men helped design and build for their new home country. The Redstone and Jupiter ballistic missiles, the latter of which launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1 in 1958, was white with black stripes to show roll. When the Redstone was modified to launch suborbital Mercury missions, it featured alternating black and white stripes on its upper stage for ground tracking purposes.
German-heritage rockets didn’t fly again with astronauts on board until the Apollo program began launching the Saturn family of rockets. Beginning with the Saturn I.
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The first four Saturn I flights, SA-1 through SA-4, featured alternating black and white stripes on the first stage, a checkered pattern on the interstage, and an all-white second stage. The problem with this scheme soon arose. The fuel tanks under the black areas registered heat spikes as the paint absorbed the heat of the Sun. But these black stripes did change from launch to launch. Rather, the upper stages changes. SA-5 launched with a black nose cone while SA-6 and SA-7 both featured a black forward interstage. Later launched saw the upper portion of the rocket painted entirely white.
Following the Saturn I was the Saturn IB. The first rockets that launched AS-201 and AS-202 were white with vertical black stripes on the first stage. Subsequent Saturn Is followed this scheme with the addition of a black interstage, until the Skylab program. For these launches, the first stage was painted entirely white to minimize heat absorption from the Sun.
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