The Universe Beckons

Before returning to Costa Rica, our lives were pretty rigidly scheduled and quite nomadic for a while. As we were hopping from city to city, we only stayed in any given place for a night or two. I was rarely able to take pictures during this time, with one notable exception.

I promised myself to write as soon as possible about a recent experience involving NASA and its glorious past. I wanted to pay homage to the remarkable people, who conceived and realized the technology, which allowed another group of equally highly skilled and disciplined men and women, contemporary explorers of new worlds, to venture forth into Space, disregarding personal safety and common sense. I wanted to show the profound respect and feeling of awe, I took away with me, after visiting a very special installation. 

Let’s begin with one single image. An image, I’ve edited over the last few days, not once, but in four different versions.

This version is called “The Universe Beckons”. It is the mesmerising image of the interior of an F-1 jet engine thrust chamber.

You’re literally looking up the badass jet of a rocket propulsion engine. Not just any jet engine, but the most powerful one in the universe, oh OK, on earth. The jets, which propelled the Saturn V rocket ships into orbit. 

In Clear Lake City, Texas, NASA has a huge barn, which is quite similar to many other large barns in Texas. However, this one doesn’t provide shelter for cattle, hay or farm machinery. 

It houses but one single rocket ship, the legendary Saturn V.

On the other side of this harmless looking barn door, you’ll be confronted by a needle-nosed monster. A 111 m or 363 ft tall rocket ship, laying on its side like a prostrate Goliath.

A sleeping Saturn V.


Inside, pointing at the barn door is the tip of the Saturn V. The white tip is in itself an independent rocket, welded onto the Command Module carrying the astronauts. This rocket, called the Launch Escape System is designed to lift the Command Module with its passengers away from potential danger, just prior to or during a launch sequence. After all, the Apollo Command Modulethe brown Hershey kiss in the pictures, sits literally on nearly 4 million liters or 900 000 imperial gallons of highly combustible liquids! 

The Launch Escape System is 10 m or 33 ft long and weighs about 3.6 metric tons. The latticework tower is welded from titanium tubing, other materials include steel, different fiberglass preparations, and cork. An emergency launch is facilitated through a group of engines, the launch escape, tower jettison and pitch control motors, which allow for a quick up and sideways motion of the Command Module. The Launch Escape System is activated by several means, either directly by the mission commander, launch control or through automated feedback circuits, reading the launch pad and Saturn V pre-launch and launch values.

I don’t believe, the Launch Escape System, this elegant escape rocket, this remarkable marvel of science and technology, was ever activated in earnest. But considering the sheer volume of the liquid hydrogen & oxygen, not to mention close to 200 000 gallons of Kerosene just below their strapped-in arses, one wonders about the mindset of the astronauts in their small capsule! 

A slender cylinder just below the Apollo Command Module houses the Service Module and the Lunar Module with its descent and ascent engines.

Apollo Command Module on right, top of Lunar Modules housing on left
All the rest of it, the entirety of this enormous rocket ship, was nothing but a launch vehicle, designed solely to lift the modules with their passengers and cargo into orbit. To burn in glory, never to return to earth.

The Saturn V first stage segment utilized five Kerosene powered F-1 rocket engines for lift-off. Two further stages were powered by J-2 liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engines, which used liquid oxygen and also liquid hydrogen as a propellant. 

For size comparison, my friend Pat posed with a solitary rocket engine exhibit outside the Saturn V barn.

Now imagine five of these monsters clustered together.


J-2 thrust chambers & engines

And when you gently inch ever closer to one of these F-1 jet engine, finally … 

… confronting the enormous maw of its thrust chamber,

you feel you have entered the secret world of the Reverend Mothers of the Bene Gesserit in a different universe altogether.

To lessen the pull into the void, we checked out varying panels and other construction details. One thing became obvious very quickly, Rosie the Riveter was a subcontractor for NASA. There must be millions of rivets on this rocket ship.


Saturn V rocket ships successfully launched all Apollo missions, despite a couple of engine trouble snafus. It was not only a giant among rockets but a tremendously reliable one!

Our friend Carlos guided us through the rocket exhibit in a Texas barn, giving us an opportunity to witness a keystone technology, which allowed humanity a first actual foothold in the vastness of Space, the final shattering of the Aristotelian celestial spheres. Thank you so very much for an exceptional experience!

Carlos Fontanot
ISS Imagery Manager
Chair, ISS Imagery Working Group
Mission Integration & Operations Office

2 thoughts on “The Universe Beckons

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