The Saturn V consisted of three stages—the S-IC first stage, S-II second stage and the S-IVB third stage—and the instrument unit. All three stages used liquid oxygen (LOX) as an oxidizer. The first stage used RP-1 for fuel, while the second and third stages used liquid hydrogen (LH2). The upper stages also used small solid-fueled ullage motors that helped to separate the stages during the launch, and to ensure that the liquid propellants were in a proper position to be drawn into the pumps.
The S-IVB (sometimes S4b, always pronounced "ess four bee") was built by the Douglas Aircraft Company and served as the third stage on the Saturn V and second stage on the Saturn IB. It had one J-2 engine. For lunar missions it was fired twice: first for the orbit insertion after second stage cutoff, and then for translunar injection (TLI).
The S-IVB evolved from the upper stage of the Saturn I rocket, the S-IV, and was the first stage of the Saturn V to be designed. The S-IV used a cluster of six engines but used the same fuels as the S-IVB — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It was also originally meant to be the fourth stage of a planned rocket called the C-4, hence the name S-IV.
Eleven companies submitted proposals for being the lead contractor on the stage by the deadline of 29 February 1960. NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan decided on 19 April that Douglas Aircraft Company would be awarded the contract. Convair had come a close second but Glennan did not want to monopolize the liquid hydrogen-fueled rocket market as Convair was already building the Centaur rocket stage.
In the end the Marshall Space Flight Center decided to use the C-5 rocket (later called the Saturn V), which had three stages and would be topped with an uprated S-IV called the S-IVB which instead of using a cluster of engines would have a single J-2 engine. Douglas was awarded the contract for the S-IVB because of the similarities between it and the S-IV. At the same time it was decided to create the C-IB rocket (Saturn IB) that would also use the S-IVB as its second stage and could be used for testing the Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit.
Douglas built two distinct versions of the S-IVB, the 200 series and the 500 series. The 200 series was used by the Saturn IB and differed from the 500 in the fact that it did not have a flared interstage and had less helium pressurization on board as it would not be restarted. On the 500 series, the interstage needed to flare out to match the larger diameter of the S-IC and S-II stages of the Saturn V. The 200 series also had three solid rockets for separating the S-IVB stage from the S-IB stage during launch. On the 500 series this was reduced to two, and additional linear APS thrusters were added for ullage operations prior to restarting the J-2 engine.
Attitude control was provided by 2 Auxiliary Propulsion System pods, and by engine gimballing. The APS modules provided 150 pounds of thrust each, and were fuelled by a hypergolic mixture of dinitrogen tetroxide and monomethyl hydrazine. They were used for three-axis control during coast phases, roll control during J-2 firings, and (on the 500 series) ullage for the second ignition of the J-2 engine and deorbit into the moon.
A surplus S-IVB tank, serial number 212, was converted into the hull for Skylab, the United States' first space station. Skylab was launched on a Saturn V on May 14, 1973, and re-entered the atmosphere on July 11, 1979. A second S-IVB, serial number 515, was also converted into a backup Skylab, which never flew.
During Apollo 13, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17, the S-IVB stages were crashed into the Moon to perform seismic measurements used for characterizing the lunar interior.