• Aeryn Avilla

Hidden Histories: Nova Rocket

Updated: May 31

Nova was NASA's first heavy-lift rocket and was proposed in 1958. It bore a number of similarities to the mighty Saturn V moon rocket it was competing with during the earliest years of the space program. The name "Nova" does not refer to a specific design but rather a family of rockets, or in some cases a rocket larger than the Saturn V. A Nova-class booster is a booster in the 10 to 20 million pound thrust range.

Nova C8 compared to the Saturn I and Saturn V (NASA)

The first iterations of Nova rockets was designed in-house at NASA in 1958. The smallest of these designs had four F-1 engines in the lower stage and J-2 engines in the upper stages. It could sends twenty-four tons of payload into a lunar injection trajectory. It was presented to President Dwight Eisenhower on January 27, 1959. The F-1 engines were later used on the Saturn V moon rockets.

Nova was not the only lunar rocket being considered. At the same time, the US Air Force was developing its Lunex Project, a plan involving crewed lunar landings with the end goal of an underground military base on the moon. The project included a massive booster design consisting of a cluster of solid rockets in the lower stage with liquid hydrogen upper stages, utilizing the J-2 or M-1 engine. The M-1, developed by Aerojet, was the largest and most powerful liquid fueled rocket engine to ever be designed and component-tested. Concurrently, Dr. Wernher von Braun at the Army Redstone Arsenal was developing his "Juno V" rocket, which used a cluster of Jupiter and Redstone engines and tanks as a first stage and a Titan I missile as a second stage. In 1959, the Army decided it no longer needed to be concerned with the development of large booster so they transferred von Braun and his team to NASA. He subsequently renamed his rocket Saturn since it is "the one after Jupiter". The Lunex Project ended in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy gave the task of landing men on the moon to NASA. Up until then, however, the Air Force's lunar rocket was up against both Nova and Saturn.

Nova would have used the Lunar Direct Ascent (LDA) approach of landing on the moon. LDA consisted of a single large rocket carrying a single large spacecraft to the moon with both lunar descent and ascent capabilities. Saturn would have used the Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) approach, which consisted of a number of small rockets launching individual components of a larger ship into orbit where it would be assembled and used for lunar flight. Over time, it became clear the lunar-bound spacecraft were heavier than initially expected and the existing Nova designs were too small. Furthermore, fifteen Saturn launches would be needed to put all parts and fuel into orbit in its original design. Both families were redesigned. The most powerful Nova rocket was the 8L, which used eight F-1 engines in its lower stage and could put 68 tons of payload into a translunar trajectory. Other configurations replaced the F-1s with large solid rocket engines while others studied nuclear rocket engines for the upper stages. The payload capacity for the different models varied between 48 and 75 tons.

Early Nova and Saturn concepts (NASA/MSFC)

At the same time, Saturn was being redeveloped as well. The new studies produced three types of Saturns, A's, B's, and C's. Saturn A models were to use a Jupiter as a second stage instead of a Titan I while Saturn B models were to use a cluster of Titans for the second stage. Saturn C models were to use J-2 engines in its entirely new upper stages and F-1s in its lower. The Saturn C-5, which would have used five F-1s, became the Saturn V. Two Saturn C-3s, which would have had three F-1 engines apiece, would be used for EOR. The Saturn C-8 was the largest member of the Saturn series to be designed and consisted of eight engines on the first and second stages and a stretched-out S-IVB third stage. The S-IVB was the third stage of the Saturn V. This rocket stood a whopping 430 feet (131 m) tall with a diameter of 40 ft (12.2 m) and a mass of more than 10.5 million lbs (4.7 million kg). It could put 460,000 lbs (210,000 kg) into LEO and 163,000 lbs (74,000 kg) into TLI.

Development of Nova came to a halt in 1961 when NASA chose Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as its lunar landing method. LOR used a single rocket to launch two spacecraft that would travel to the moon together, have one remain in orbit while the other landed on the moon, and would rendezvous and dock in lunar orbit before returning to Earth. The payload mass requirement was about halfway between those of the Saturn C-3 and Nova 8L. After studying what would be required to modify either booster to meet the new requirements of around 200,000 lbs (91,000 kg), it was found that the Saturn C-5 worked best. However, this was not the main determining factor in selecting Saturn instead of Nova: Saturn was chosen because the Saturn C-5 could be built in an existing factory located outside New Orleans, Louisiana, later known as the Michoud Assembly Factory. Nova, which was larger in diameter than Saturn, would require the construction of new factories in order to be built.

Late 1961 illustration of Nova and its flight path (NASA/MSFC)

Studies on Nova continued into 1964 as a backup for Saturn but did not get very far. As Apollo continued, NASA thought the next step in manned space exploration was a trip to Mars. The Saturn V was much too small. A second series of Nova designs were studied under contract by the major aerospace companies that did not receive the major Apollo-related contracts— General Dynamics and Martin Marietta. Philip Bono at Douglas Aircraft submitted his own as well. While they shared the name Nova, they were not related to the original in-house NASA designs. These new rockets would need to put up to 1,300,000 lbs (588,000 kg) of payload into LEO. NASA received a wide variety of designs. The Nova C8 concept was nearly identical to the proposed Saturn C-8. The most common depiction of any Nova rocket is the C8. Soon after these proposals were submitted, however, it became clear that post-Apollo funding would not be sufficient for missions to Mars.

Nova was a conceptual family of heavy-lift rockets studied by NASA in the early 1960s. While it was ultimately rejected in favor of the Saturn family, it remains one of the most popular cancelled space projects in history. Was choosing Saturn over Nova the right choice for the Apollo Program? Was terminating Nova studies into post-Apollo deep space missions the smartest move long-term? Comment your thoughts and remember to like and share this post. Thanks for reading!


  • Teitel, Amy Shira. “Nova: The Apollo Rocket That Never Was.” Astronomy.com, 31 May 2019, astronomy.com/news/2019/05/nova-the-apollo-rocket-that-never-was.

  • Tjokrosetio, Danny. “Nova: The Mighty Moon Rocket That (Literally) Never Took Off.” Medium, Medium, 16 July 2020, dannytjokrosetio.medium.com/nova-the-mighty-moon-rocket-that-literally-never-took-off-702876c34fd3.

  • Wade, Mark. Nova, www.astronautix.com/n/nova.html.

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