The Enduring, Iconic Look of SA-500F


During a recent visit to Kennedy Space Center, I spotted this Saturn V desk model at the gift shop. One of the first things that stood out for me was the black and white roll pattern on the first stage.  A legacy of the Von Braun team, roll patterns provided an easy way to visually determine vehicle attitude in flight.  For many, the four iconic vertical black bars with a solid ring of black on the first stage symbolizes the Saturn V.  The vertical bars crossed the aft skirt, RP-1 fuel tank and the intertank.  The solid ring circled the base of the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank.  Between the bold, black bars, red letters spelled out, USA.

Yet, it was a roll pattern that never flew.  We know it from what was called the Facilities Integration Vehicle, SA-500F.  This was a test version of the Saturn V with only one F-1 engine and four mass simulators that was used to test all of the assembly and support systems for the Saturn V.  From attachment to the Mobile Launcher to the ability of the equipment in the Vehicle Assembly Building to stack the rocket to all of the umbilical and fluid connections at LC-39, plus the fit of the Mobile Service Structure, SA-500 was there to make sure that they all worked.

NASA Image KSC-66PC-75 via

NASA was understandably proud of their new rocket and published may photos of the rollout of SA-500F  and it at LC-39A.  Many of these became stock images that were used, and reused, when images of a Saturn V were needed for all kinds of different publications over many years.  Images that have since come to symbolize the great rocket.

Except for a couple of days when it was rolled back to the VAB to protect it from Hurricane Alma, SA-500F was at LC-39A from May 25 to October 14, 1966.  During this time, many tests of the launch and pad systems and their connections to the rocket were tested, including a wet test to fill the propellant tanks.  One of the results of these many tests was that the black paint absorbed the heat of the Florida sun, creating issues inside the intertank and temperature problems for the stored LOX.

So, when the first flight vehicle, SA-501, was stacked in the VAB, the upper section of the roll pattern that had been applied at Marshall Spaceflight Center was painted over with white, as can be seen in the photo below.

NASA Image KSC-67PC-348 via

SA-501 saw the introduction of the US flag to the LOX tank of the first stage and the flight colors on the third stage.  With only minor variations, this would be the look of all future Saturn Vs.

Though at times seeing the SA-500F roll pattern on a Saturn V representation can cause space fans to grind their teeth, I think we all have to admit that it has long been an icon of space history – and now, I’m good with that.  SA-500F served a noble purpose, so perhaps it is fitting that it persists in our memory.  A good memory.


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