Orbital rockets symbolize the pinnacle of modern engineering, producing thousands of pounds of thrust to put a payload into orbit. Inevitably, this raises the question of how and where these large launch vehicles are built.

Rockets are primarily assembled at facilities like NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. However, due to the large number of highly specialized parts, most rocket components are manufactured at various locations before being shipped to an assembly facility near a launch site.

Today’s modern orbital rockets are, on average, the height of a 15-story building or taller. For example, the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts to the Moon stood 110 meters (363 feet) tall, while SpaceX’s Starship reaches a combined height of 120 meters (393 feet).

(Learn more about the average size of an orbital rocket by examining the 30 largest launch vehicles in history in this article.)

As a result, it only makes sense that they are built close to their respective launch sites since transporting these large vehicles poses a significant logistical problem. And this is exactly what space agencies like NASA, SpaceX, and the ULA (United Launch Alliance) do.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket- Lifts Off From Launch Pad 39A With Its Horizontal Integration Facility In The Foreground
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center with its Horizontal Integration Facility in the foreground – Image Credit: SpaceX

For example, NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as well as SpaceX’s Starbase production facility in Boca Chica, Texas, are both based right next to the actual launch sites. However, these facilities are primarily used for final assembly.

As this article will detail, the vast majority of components that make up an orbital launch vehicle are manufactured in different locations and only shipped for final assembly once completed and tested at the respected manufacturing and testing facilities.

Probably the best example of the way in which a modern orbital rocket is built, transported, and assembled, is the iconic Saturn V rocket used during the Apollo Program in the 1960s and 1970s.

The following section will detail the various components that made up the Saturn V, where they were made, and how they were transported and assembled for launch. (This will help to explain how most modern launch vehicles are still built and assembled today.)

The Saturn V Manufacturing And Transportation Process

The Saturn V was a 3-stage rocket, meaning it consisted of 3 individual sections, each with its own propulsion system that was deployed at various stages throughout the vehicle’s ascent into orbit. (More about rocket staging and how it works in an upcoming article.)

Apart from the rocket’s first, second, and third stages, the vehicle also consisted of the critical command and service module (CSM), the lunar module (used by astronauts to descend to the Moon), and the instrumentational section used for guidance and navigation.

The Saturn V also consisted of a large number of smaller systems and structures, which all played a crucial part in its operation. In total, the launch vehicle had more than three million moving parts.

The vehicle was primarily made from aluminum but also used strong, lightweight titanium, polyurethane, and cork for the manufacturing of the various components.

Saturn V lifts Off From Launch Complex 39 At Kennedy Space Center
Saturn V lifts Off From Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.

(Technically, engineers divide a rocket into four major parts/systems: The structural system, propulsion system, guidance system, and payload system. Learn more about each of these systems and their function in this article.)

By looking at the manufacturing, transport, and assembly of the rocket’s major components, one will be able to gain a clear understanding of how a modern orbital launch vehicle is made. The parts that will be focussed on are:

  1. Saturn First Stage (S-IC)
  2. Saturn Second Stage (S-II)
  3. Saturn Third Stage (S-IVB)
  4. Command And Service Module (CSM)
  5. Lunar Module (LM)
  6. Instrumentation Section

1) Saturn First Stage (S-IC)

The Saturn V’s First Stage was 42 meters (138 feet) tall with a diameter of 10 meters (33 feet). It was powered by five F-1 Rocketdyne engines and powered the craft to an altitude of 67 kilometers (42 miles) before separating and being ejected from the rest of the vehicle.

This section of the rocket was manufactured by the Boeing company in New Orleans, USA, at the Michoud Assembly Facility. Due to its size, it could only be transported by barge.

It was transported via the Mississippi River to the Gulf Of Mexico, after which it traveled up the Intra-Coastal Waterway to the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

2) Saturn Second Stage (S-II)

The Saturn V’s Second Stage was 24.87 meters (81.6 feet) tall with a diameter of 10 meters (33 feet). It was powered by five J-2 Rocketdyne engines and accelerated the craft to an altitude of 175 kilometers (109 miles) before also separating from the rest of the vehicle.

This stage used hydrogen as fuel (unlike the RP-1 used by the first stage) which had to be kept at temperatures below −252.8° Celsius (-423.04° Fahrenheit), which posed significant design challenges.

The contract for this component was awarded to North American Aviation which manufactured this stage and integrated the J-2 engines in Seal Beach, California.

Like the rocket’s first stage, it was also too big to be transported by road or air and had to be transported by sea from California and up the Intra-Coastal Waterway to Stennis Testing Facility in Mississippi before arriving at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Saturn V Second Stage
A Saturn V Second Stage being lowered on top of the First Stage.

3) Saturn Third Stage (S-IVB)

The rocket’s third stage (S-IVB) was 17.86 meters (58.6 feet) tall with a diameter of 6.6 meters (21.7 feet). It was powered by a single J-2 Rocketdyne engine.

Its engine was fired twice after launch. The first ignition established the craft in a parking orbit 190 kilometers (118 miles) above the Earth’s surface. After a number of checkout procedures, the engine was ignited again to put the rocket in a translunar injection orbit.

The contract for this component was awarded to the Douglas Aircraft Company, which manufactured the stage and integrated the J-2 engine at Huntington Beach in California.

The third stage’s smaller size allowed it to be transported via air by NASA’s Super Guppy, a specially-designed aircraft for transporting large and abnormal-sized payloads.

4) Command And Service Module (CSM)

Command And Service Module
The Command And Service Module above the Moon’s surface as pictured from the Lunar Module.

The Apollo Command and Service Module were the critical components that housed the astronauts and were used for orbiting the Moon during the Lunar Module’s descent to the surface and returning the crew back to Earth.

The combined length of the vehicle was 11 meters (36.2 feet) with a diameter of 3.9 meters (12.8 feet). The command module was 3.48 meters (11.4 feet) long & 3.9 meters (12.8 feet) wide, and the service module was 7.49 meters (24.6 feet) long & 3.9 meters (12.8 feet) wide.

The vehicle was built by North American Aviation (later to be merged with North American Rockwell) in Downey, California. The two sections were transported to Kennedy via air with NASA’s Super Guppy before being mated and integrated with the rest of the vehicle.

5) Lunar Module (LM)

The Lunar Module was the craft that carried astronauts from the command module to the surface of the Moon. The two-stage vehicle consisted of a descent and ascent stage. The latter served as a launch platform for the ascent stage to return to the command module.

The vehicle was 7.04 meters (23.1 feet) tall with a diameter of 4.22 meters (13.8 feet). It was stored between the Service Module and the Saturn V’s Third Stage during the rocket’s launch inside the Spacecraft-To-LM adapter.

The vehicle was designed and built by the Grumman Aircraft Company in Bethpage, New York. Like the command and service module, all lunar modules were also transported via air with NASA’s Super Guppy to Kennedy Space Center for final assembly.

6) Instrument Module

Saturn V Instrument Unit
A Saturn V Instrument Unit is being processed at the IBM manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Alabama.

One of the most critical yet little-known and overlooked parts of a rocket is its guidance system. Without it, an orbital launch vehicle will be unable to orientate itself, “steer,” and follow a specific path or trajectory. This was true for the Saturn V rocket as well.

The instrument section that controlled the vehicle’s guidance and telemetry was a circular unit situated on top of the rocket’s third stage. The structure that contained the array of instruments was 1 meter (3.2 feet) tall with a diameter of 6.7 meters (22 feet).

This section was built by International Business Machines (IBM) at the Space Systems Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Like the Saturn V’s Third Stage and Lunar Module, the instrument unit was transported via air aboard a Super Guppy to Kennedy Space Center.

Once at Kennedy Space Center, all the stages and components underwent a final inspection before being assembled vertically in the purposely built Vehicle Assembly Building (originally known as the Vertical Assembly Building).

The assembly building was specifically built for the Apollo Program to facilitate the vertical assembly of the giant Saturn V rocket. The building is so large that it could accommodate 4 Saturn V launch vehicles simultaneously thanks to its four high bays.

After assembly, the completed Saturn V rocket was slowly rolled out on a mobile launch platform (called the Mobile Launcher) situated on a giant Crawler Transporter, which carried it to Launch Complex 39.

Although the Apollo Program took place very early in the United States Space Program and made use of a large number of different contractors throughout the country, modern space agencies follow a similar process, using different locations and manufacturers for the various components necessary to build an orbital launch vehicle.

SpaceX is one company, though, that manufactures the vast majority of its rockets in-house. But even this highly successful private space agency uses multiple manufacturing and assembly facilities spread out throughout the country, as the following section illustrates:

SpaceX Manufacturing & Assembly Process

At the time of writing, SpaceX is currently focussing on the production and development of two launch vehicles: The highly successful Falcon 9 rocket and its gigantic Starship Project, currently under development in Boca Chica, Texas.

By having a quick look at each rocket’s manufacturing and assembly process, it will quickly become apparent how similar it is and how the same trends are followed that were used more than 50 years ago to build the Saturn V rocket.

Falcon 9 Manufacturing & Assembly

The Falcon 9 rocket is the most successful and widely used rocket in modern times. The partially reusable launch vehicle is capable of transporting a payload of 22 800 kg (50 300 pounds) to Low Earth Orbit or 8 300 kg (18 300 pounds) to Geostationary Transfer Orbit.

It is currently the only human-rated rocket, meaning it is certified by NASA to carry astronauts into space. Its First Stage is also reusable and can return to the surface after launch and land to be refurbished for future launches.

Currently, the Falcon 9 is launched from 3 locations in the United States: Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Consequently, its main assembly facility is situated at Kennedy Space Center, close to its primary launch site.

Falcon 9 Assembly
The First And Second Stages of SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets are being processed at the company’s manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California.

However, most of the vehicles are manufactured far away from any of these launch or assembly facilities at its main manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California. The rocket’s engines, fuselage, and most other key components are manufactured in this factory.

The rocket is then transported by road on a specially built truck to the integration facility at the launch site, where it is mated with its payload and assembly finalized. Unlike the Saturn V, the Falcon 9 is assembled horizontally before being hoisted vertically before launch.

Starship Super Heavy Manufacturing & Assembly

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy will be the largest orbital launch vehicle once completed. It consists of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy Booster, of which both sections will be fully reusable.

The vehicle stands 120 meters (393 feet) tall combined. The Starship spacecraft measures 50 meters (164 feet) in length, while the Super Heavy Booster forms the largest section at 70 meters (229 feet). Both sections use liquid methane as the rocket’s propellant.

The rocket is currently under development at Starbase, SpaceX’s manufacturing facility and test site in Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX Starbase
Starship launch vehicles are built at SpaceX’s Starbase manufacturing facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

Although most of the rocket is manufactured at Starbase, its Raptor engines are built and transported from its manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, Texas. The engines are tested at the company’s testing center in McGregor, Texas, before integration with the vehicle.

The rocket is currently being launched from the Boca Chica test site, but SpaceX has already started with the construction of a launchpad for the giant rocket at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, with a second pad at Launch Complex 49 also under consideration.

Although the focus thus far has been on the Saturn V, developed by NASA in the 1960s and 70s, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Starship launch vehicles, it has to be noted that most other space agencies follow a very similar approach in the development of orbital launch vehicles.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA), responsible for manufacturing the Atlas and Delta family of rockets, as well as Blue Origin, have their assembly facilities close to their respective launch sites, with their manufacturing facilities situated in different locations.

These companies also source their components from across the country, with parts like the Atlas V’s RD-180 engines designed and built in foreign countries like Russia.

Even small satellite launch vehicle manufacturers like Rocket Lab, which manufactures and launches their Electron rocket from New Zealand, also operate from various locations. Their Rutherford rocket engines are manufactured at their headquarters in Long Beach, California.


As this article clearly illustrated, most modern medium to heavy-lift launch vehicle manufacturers operate in a similar way when it comes to building a rocket.

Due to the size of a modern orbital rocket, manufacturers’ assembly facilities are located as close as possible to the launch site. However, the various manufacturing facilities are situated in different and, in most cases, multiple locations.

Transportation of the various rocket parts from their respective manufacturing facilities to the final assembly/integration facilities takes place via waterways, roads, or air, depending largely on the size of the individual component.

This article was originally published on headedforspace.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.

Similar Posts