Nova: The Apollo rocket that never was

Before Saturn V, the most massive rocket ever built, NASA dreamed of another launch vehicle with nearly twice the power.
By | Published: May 31, 2019 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Before NASA decided to launch Apollo on the Saturn V rocket, the agency considered a larger rocket called Nova. The necessary launch vehicle for the heavier Direct Ascent mission profile, this mind-blowingly large rocket was never built.

The Saturn V was massive. Standing 363 feet (110 meters) tall with a 33-foot (10 m) diameter, it delivered 7.5 million pounds (3.4 million kilograms) of thrust at the moment of launch. This three-stage rocket had five F-1 engines in its first stage, five J-2 engines powering its second stage, and a single J-2 engine on its third stage.

Nova was conceived as both taller and wider than the Saturn V, and almost twice as powerful. Its first stage was powered by eight F-1 engines, each of which could deliver 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) of thrust — bringing the rocket’s total power to a whopping 12 million pounds (5.4 million kg) of thrust at launch. 

The second stage was powered by four liquid-hydrogen M-1 engines that could produce an additional 4.8 million pounds (2.2 million kg) of thrust. The third and final stage was akin to the Saturn V’s — it had one J-2 engine, whose 200,000 pounds (90,000 kg) of thrust could send a heavy payload to the Moon.

Because Direct Ascent was NASA’s preferred mission mode in the earliest days of Apollo, Nova was the frontrunner for launch vehicle in 1958. But when NASA realized it could launch the same spacecraft on two smaller — and simpler — Saturn rockets (Earth Orbit Rendezvous mode), the larger, more complicated Nova design was pushed to the back burner. It stayed there when NASA later settled on Lunar Orbit Rendezvous for Apollo; there was just no need for a rocket as big as Nova.

Nevertheless, Nova was poised to make a comeback after Apollo. As they looked ahead, program managers and engineers expected this rocket to be the workhorse that would extend humanity’s reach to the other planets and deep into the solar system after landing on the Moon. Of course, this never happened. 

Toward the end of the 1960s, the rising cost of Apollo brought a new emphasis on reusable rockets; rather than develop a larger and more powerful launch vehicle, NASA was instead directed to develop the space shuttle system in the 1970s.