From the fertile imaginings of the 1950s and 60s in the American aerospace industry came a wealth of Space-launcher ideas in all seemingly conceivable (and sometimes, inconceivable) shapes and sizes. So as we continue to investigate some of the ‘biggest rockets that never were’ and cannot examine them all, let’s take a look at those that were particularly unique, about which sufficient detail still exists, or that were most seriously considered for development.
With the first launch vehicle on our list comes something to please any X-Files-‘faithfuls’ among our readership, something very far removed from conventional rocket concepts. In the 50s and 60s NASA was conducting studies initially for a Lunar Rocket (from which the Saturn V ultimately transpired) and then latterly for a Mars Rocket. Both series of super-heavy launcher concepts were referred to generally as ‘Nova’ class rockets. During this period a proposal came from Phil Bono of Douglas Aircraft that was simply called ‘Saucer’.
It was a conventional chemical rocket in so far as it would have used liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel, with an estimated payload-lifting ability of 453 tonnes. Since it was not selected for development it remained a concept drawing only and so little else about it today is known. (Perhaps this design was thought by NASA to be too far-fetched? Well, I’ll let you be the judge…) At any rate, by a reading of its dimensions, it would have made for quite a sight. With a huge dish-like rocket core mounted upright atop a line of rocket engines, the uppermost edge of the almost circular ‘Saucer’ would’ve reached a staggering 120 metres tall. It would’ve been 9 metres taller than the Saturn V, one-and-a-half times the height of Canada’s Grand Chateau Frontenac Hotel.
Had it been built, its diameter would also have been ‘off the chart’ for any vertical-take-off chemical rocket ever seen. On a specially-built launchpad the fuselage of this rocket would’ve had a wider span than the 100-metre Effelsberg radio telescope in Germany! Or to put it another way, its out-of-this-world 108-metre-diameter core stage would’ve still been wider than the Soviet Union’s greatest rocket, the N1, had it been parked horizontally in front of it. Thus, without contest, the ‘Saucer’ takes off with the trophy for ‘Widest Space Launcher Concept’ safely stowed within its fairing. So there we have it – the truth is out there!
This next rocket on our list however would’ve been taller still…
Within NASA the name ‘Nova’ essentially became synonymous with ‘really big’ super-heavy rockets. This was in part thanks to the fact that they were originally examined as ‘direct ascent’ rocket concepts. So instead of utilising the slingshot-like speed-boost of Earth’s gravity in an orbital manoeuvre, the Nova rocket needed to compensate by carrying extra fuel to achieve the necessary velocity to escape Earth’s gravitational hold by itself. Another factor pushing up the size was that the Nova launch vehicle in turn then needed enough fuel energy to carry its entire ‘dry mass’ all the way to Space (unlike what was established latterly as Saturn V’s more efficient ‘discard as you go’ approach).
With the Apollo program well underway, NASA was already trying to plan for the next logical phase of Space exploration after a manned lunar landing had been achieved. Man going to Mars. Despite the incredible success of Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V rocket, it became apparent that it would be unable to provide the necessary speed or be large enough to carry the amount of fuel required for humans to travel the significantly longer distance to the Red Planet. To this end NASA began looking at rockets on a much larger scale to carry much greater payloads. A number of aerospace companies of the day were commissioned to come up with possible designs for the next generation of super-heavy launcher.
One such company was Martin Marietta. In September 1963 Martin Marietta presented their ‘Nova Advanced Concepts’ to NASA. It featured a rocket with the not-so-catchy title ‘T10RE-1’. If we can overlook its unwieldy name, this huge chemical rocket would’ve dwarfed the Saturn V in all dimensions. Had it been built it would’ve been taller than Zurich’s tallest building, Prime Tower, standing 127.5m in height, and measuring 22 metres across, it would’ve been more than twice the diameter of the Apollo era’s champion launch vehicle!