It has not flown for more than 40 years, but the Saturn V remains the tallest and heaviest rocket ever operated. It is one of the most commanding vehicles ever made, as it’s still the only form of transportation that allowed human beings to leave low Earth orbit.
Last week, Maxim Sachs, a YouTube user who makes animations to experiment with 3-D modeling software, illustrated the Saturn V rocket in a novel way. The animation showed how much fuel was burned by the titanic rocket during takeoff, expressed not in terms of pounds or liters, but elephants.
Elephants—shooting out of the rear of the rocket, clumping on the tarmac. The short video soon became a GIF, and from there it traversed Twitter, Facebook, and digital parts unknown:
I saw this GIF. I chuckled. And then I wondered: Is it accurate?
Journalism—clear-eyed, white-knuckled, no-illusions journalism—was clearly needed here. How many elephants of fuel did a Saturn V burn per second?
The Saturn V’s first stage lasted 180 seconds, so it’s the only stage that appears in this video. According to this NASA news reference, released during the Apollo years and provided to The Atlantic by the space agency’s history office, the Saturn V’s first stage used two different chemicals.
The first was RP-1, a form of refined petroleum that is stable at room temperature and served as the rocket’s fuel. The second, liquid oxygen, oxidized the fuel and permitted it to burn. The modern Soyuz launch vehicle, as well as the American Antares and Falcon 9 crafts, still use this combination of liquid oxygen and RP-1.
So. The first stage consumed 1,400,000 lbs of RP-1 and 3,178,000 lbs of LOX. That’s 4,578,000 lbs of expended chemical in total.
4.6 million lbs of elephant. How many creatures is that?
It depends on the kind of elephant you’re talking about.
Asian elephants and African forest elephants can both grow to be 6,000 lbs. (Did you know that, in 2010, biologists divided the African elephant into two distantly related species? Neither did I.) But African bush elephants, the largest land animal in the world, can grow to be 14,000 lbs.
Divide one by the other and you arrive at between about 760 and 330 elephants being on order during the Saturn V’s 2.5-minute first stage. On the high side, that’s more than four elephants per second. That’s not anything close to the GIF above, which uses the far more conservative estimate of 1.36 elephants per second. Still, it gets the point across: Big Rocket Is Big.