Saturn V vs. SpaceX Starship: How These Mega Capacity Rockets Compare

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Saturn V vs. SpaceX Starship: How These Mega Capacity Rockets Compare

Rising above the earth’s surface on a thunderous pillar of exhaust as they seek the cold void of space, rockets are among mankind’s most awe-inspiring vehicles. The Saturn V held the crown for many years as the biggest and most powerful among these aerospace platforms. NASA engineered it for the Apollo lunar missions and used it to launch Skylab in space. The Saturn V carried 24 astronauts successfully into space without any serious accidents.

The Saturn V set a high bar for ambitious rocketeers, but Elon Musk’s SpaceX has taken up the challenge. It is researching and building the SpaceX Starship as a Super Heavy Launch Vehicle slightly more powerful than the Saturn V. Technological advances also greatly increase its ability to carry people and payloads efficiently into space. The Starship could open up space to humans more than previous rockets – if it lives up to its design promises. In our Saturn V vs SpaceX Starship comparison, we look at how both space vehicles stack up against each other.

Saturn V vs. SpaceX Starship: Side-By-Side Comparison

SpaceX StarshipSaturn V
Height394 feet363 feet
Diameter30 feet33 feet
Dry Weight330 tons207 tons
Payload110 to 165 tons48 to 118 tons
Maximum Passengers1003 (on Apollo modules)
Engine Thrust16.9 million pounds9 million pounds
Rocket FuelLiquid MethaneKerosene, Liquid Hydrogen, Liquid Oxygen
Hull MaterialStainless SteelAluminum, Titanium, Asbestos Panels

Saturn V vs. SpaceX Starship: What’s the Difference?

A spaceship is a spacecraft controlled by a crew.

At first glance, Saturn V and Starship look similar. Both are lift vehicles on a titanic scale, hundreds of feet tall and able to carry over 110,000 pounds of payload. Their only possible rival, short of a few mostly-failed Soviet designs, is the Chinese Long March 9. On closer inspection, however, the Starship and the Saturn V are different beasts from different eras and with dissimilar goals.

The Saturn V could carry only two or three people inside a lunar module. The Starship might carry up to a hundred or more. The Saturn V’s designers focused on putting a man on the moon, while the Starship could be a sort of “space airliner” for tourists or passengers bound as far afield as Mars. And while the Saturn V, for all its awesome power and dimensions, was a single-use, disposable rocket, SpaceX is making the Starship reusable.


The United States developed the Saturn V (Roman numeral five) rocket as a heavy lift vehicle during the 1960s space race with the USSR. Famous German scientific genius and space enthusiast Wernher von Braun was involved in the program, along with many other important researchers. NASA specifically built the Saturn V rocket to carry the Apollo moon landers into space.

The researchers constructed several Saturn V rockets used for unmanned test launches in 1967 and 1968. The vehicle went aloft with manned Apollo modules starting in 1969, playing a pivotal role in Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The final Saturn V lifted the initial research space station Skylab into orbit in 1973.

Unlike the state-sponsored development of the Saturn V, private enterprise is building and testing the SpaceX Starship. Elon Musk announced the program in 2012, initially dubbing the planned rocket “Mars Colonial Transporter.” SpaceX scientists developed many iterations of the vehicle over the following years, while Musk gave it a long series of different names. The company finally adopted the Starship name in 2019.

The Starship successfully took off and landed for the first time on March 3rd, 2021. Previous versions took off correctly but crashed or exploded when landing. The SN10 Starship landed intact six minutes after liftoff. However, it exploded in a spectacular burst of flame approximately eight minutes following its triumphant touchdown. Later, another rocket, the SN15, flew about six miles high and landed, this time without an explosion. Work on the Starship’s development continues as early as 2023, with a tentative Mars mission scheduled for 2029.

Size and Performance

Saturn V and SpaceX Starship rockets have remarkably similar dimensions for titanic launch vehicles. The Saturn 5 stands 363 feet high, while the Starship is less than 10% taller, adding 31 feet for a total height of 394 feet. Engineers made the Saturn V with a 33-foot diameter at its greatest girth. SpaceX’s designers made the Starship slightly slimmer, with a maximum diameter of 30 feet.

The SpaceX Starship weighs approximately 100 tons heavier than the Saturn V, or 56 tons if the Lunar Module’s weight is included in the Saturn V’s. This is due in part to the Saturn V’s strongly tapering design, while the Starship remains at full diameter almost to its nose. But most of the extra weight comes from materials. The Saturn V’s designers chose to fabricate it mainly from aluminum, titanium, and asbestos panels. These are disposable and lightweight materials, easing the task its engines faced lifting it into space.

Elon Musk’s rocketeers are building the Starship’s hull from stainless steel, as reported by Space.com. Engineers use this material for its long-term durability. Elon Musk pointed out stainless steel can survive repeated launches and re-entries, particularly resisting the heat generated. Scientists discarded SpaceX’s original plans for a carbon fiber Starship hull because it couldn’t withstand heating from atmospheric friction as effectively.

The Starship will repeatedly shuttle into space with three trips planned daily if SpaceX achieves its goals. This level of heavy reuse almost certainly makes the use of high-resilience steel alloy a good choice for rockets.

Reusable Design

Although effective and powerful, The Saturn V was expensive to build and operate. The high cost was mainly due to the fact engineers made it a single-use vehicle. The sheer size of the first-stage booster made a recovery extremely difficult and resulted in a sacrificial vehicle that ditched in the ocean after a completed launch. The rocket broke up in the atmosphere, and anything remaining was pulverized when it hit the ocean surface.

Before budgets were cut, scientists worked on ideas for recovering Saturn V components to save costs and construction time. Hiller Aircraft, based in Palo Alto, proposed one of the most spectacular solutions. It designed a vast helicopter with a 400-foot rotor span. Paired jet engines mounted on the tip of each of the three rotors would keep them spinning at close to the speed of sound. The helicopter would weigh in at 450,000 lbs.

Hiller’s plan called for NASA to mount a parachute array on the Saturn V first-stage booster. The giant helicopter would intercept the booster as it dropped through the atmosphere and attached hooks. It would then gradually take over from the parachutes and, once fully supporting the booster, fly it to a ship. Hiller intended the maneuver to prevent seawater contamination of the booster, making its restoration to working order quickly and cheap. The company never took the project past the planning stage because the Saturn V program ended.

By contrast with the expensive but disposable Saturn V, SpaceX is designing the Starship as a reusable rocket. Engineers are making both stages of the giant Starship fully reusable. They can use their Raptor engines plus active aerodynamic control such as fins to land for refueling and reuse.

Passengers and Payload

To date, the tallest rocket ever built is the Saturn V Rocket.

Saturn V carried a maximum cargo payload of 118 tons to low Earth orbit or 48 tons to trans-lunar injection. The SpaceX Starship will haul 110 to 165 tons depending on the destination. However, the raw figures conceal some significant differences. Saturn V only carried its payload to the fringes of space, while the Starship is expected to reach the moon or Mars.

The Saturn V’s first stage had 10 rocket engines delivering about 7.5 million pounds of thrust (33,000 kilonewtons or kN). All of its stages together developed 9 million or 40,000 kN of thrust. The Starship Super Heavy’s first stage uses 33 Raptor 2 rocket engines to generate 16.9 million pounds or 75,315 kN of thrust. In other words, the Starship’s first stage generates more than twice the power of Saturn V’s first stage. It is also nearly twice as powerful as all three stages of the Saturn V combined.

Despite burning lots of fuel, the Saturn V was surprisingly “green” for its day. Its propulsion came from burning liquid kerosene, a moderate pollutant, and liquid hydrogen and oxygen. The Starship runs entirely on liquid methane, as SpaceX plans to extract methane on Mars. Liquid methane rocket fuel pollutes less than kerosene but more than hydrogen and oxygen, putting the two spacecraft roughly on par for eco-friendliness.

The Starship’s immense engine power enables it lift so much despite being far heavier than the Saturn V. While the Saturn V lifted a few people along with the lunar modules, the Starship can also carry 100 passengers. SpaceX’s engineers are designing it to house these passengers in about 38,800 cubic feet of pressurized living quarters.

Saturn V vs SpaceX Starship: 7 Must-Know Facts

  • The two rockets have similar physical dimensions, 363 feet versus 394 feet high and 33 feet versus 30 feet in diameter.
  • The Saturn V used aluminum, titanium, and asbestos panels in its construction, while SpaceX built the Starship from a stainless steel alloy.
  • The Saturn V weighed 207 tons, while the Starship weighed 330 tons.
  • The Starship’s engines develop about twice the thrust of the Saturn V’s first stage.
  • Saturn’s engines used kerosene, hydrogen, and oxygen, while the Starship propelled itself with liquid methane.
  • The Saturn V lifted 118 tons of cargo, while the Starship carried 110 tons to 165 tons.
  • The Saturn V’s cost per launch was $185 million, or $1.25 billion in modern currency, while the Starship’s cost per launch is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million.

Saturn V vs SpaceX Starship: Which One Is Better?

Whatever the Starship’s attributes, the Saturn V remains a triumph of combined European and American scientific ingenuity and sheer determination. NASA scientists and engineers developed it from blueprints to launch in six years. Leading scientist George Mueller insisted on testing multiple components at once to reach the moon landing deadline and did so successfully.

In the end, the Saturn V was a major but strictly limited first step. Engineers designed it for the highly focused purpose of launching Apollo spacecraft to the moon. It was, therefore, single-use and was simply a launch vehicle rather than a versatile, maneuvering rocket system.

The SpaceX Starship is a better all-around rocket system. Its designers made it fully reusable, immensely reducing the cost per launch relative to the Its secondary stages fly and maneuver on their own, with planned refueling en route by the Starship Tanker. It can carry equal or larger payloads while transporting up to 100 people as far away as the moon or Mars.

Despite the latter’s historical successes, the Starship outshines the Saturn V in flexibility, function, and distance it can travel. It now only remains for SpaceX to achieve the same success in actualizing its design that NASA’s engineers had in building a fully functional Saturn V.

Last-Minute Issue Halts SpaceX’s Starship Test Flight

SpaceX readied its biggest rocket for its first flight on April 17, 2023, but canceled the launch moments before takeoff due to a pressurization problem.

SpaceX had prepared the world’s largest and most potent rocket for its maiden voyage on Monday, April 17th, 2023 but due to a “pressurization” issue, the company aborted the launch just minutes before liftoff.

Elon Musk tweeted that there was an issue with a frozen pressure valve, which could cause a delay in the launch. Shortly after the tweet, the launch was canceled, and the countdown ended 40 seconds before the scheduled lift-off.

SpaceX needs at least 48 hours to get the Starship rocket system ready for another orbital flight attempt. The company intends for this to be the first step towards human travel to the moon and ultimately, Mars. On Friday, April 14th, the Federal Aviation Administration granted regulatory approval for the launch to take place in Texas.

Furthermore, NASA tries to minimize risk, and SpaceX has a history of embracing it by allowing test flights to fail, as Musk believes that such experiences help them learn from their mistakes. The company has already started building more rockets for upcoming tests.

Saturn V vs. SpaceX Starship in the News

The world’s attention remains glued to the ongoing plans and achievements of the iconic Saturn V and the revolutionary SpaceX Starship. On one hand, the Saturn V, with its awe-inspiring missions to the moon, rekindle the spirit of the Apollo era. On the other hand, the SpaceX Starship has sparked a new wave of enthusiasm and speculation with its innovative design and ambitious goals. The world watches in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the ongoing race to the stars.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the size of the Saturn V and the Starship compared to some famous landmarks?

The Saturn V is just one foot shorter than One Times Square, the building from which the ball drops on New Year’s each year. The Starship stands 30 feet higher. Both are several dozen feet taller than London’s Big Ben clock tower. Both are also somewhat taller than the Statue of Liberty, including its base.

Why is the SpaceX Starship’s reusable design so important?

Making the Starship reusable cuts the cost per launch hugely, making space exploration and activity much more affordable. Elon Musk estimates the cost per launch at $1.5 million to $2 million. The Saturn V cost $185 million per launch at the time, or about $1.25 billion in today’s money, because each rocket was single-use.

Why is the Starship so much heavier than the Saturn V?

The Starship is mostly built from stainless steel to make it tough enough for hundreds or thousands of reuses.

How often will the Starship be launched?

Elon Musk envisions each rocket launching three times daily. He wants the Starship Super Heavy first stage to be capable of launching within 30 minutes of landing.

Does the Saturn V have any advantages over the Starship?

Its engineers took it from planning to launch in 6 years, while the Starship has been under development for 10 years and hasn’t yet completed a full mission. The Saturn V also actually existed as a finished vehicle, while the Starship is still a prototype under development and its achievements are all currently predictions rather than actual performance.

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