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 take-off, 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.