Forty-six years ago today Apollo 12 became the second craft to land people on the Moon. Today the Museum of Flight received an incredible treasure: parts of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines that blasted Apollo into orbit.
The engines were found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his team from Bezos Expeditions. Bezos requested that the engines be donated to the museum and NASA honored that request.
“This is truly a historic day for the museum, for our community,” said Doug King, president and CEO of the Museum of Flight. “I don’t think it’s too grandiose to say for our country and maybe even for humankind.”
“Exhibiting these historic engines not only shares NASA’s storied history, it also helps America educate to innovate,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a news release. “This display of spaceflight greatness can help inspire our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and explorers to build upon past successes and create the new knowledge and capabilities needed to enable our journey to Mars.”
Bezos said he became interested in science and exploration as a five-year-old watching Neil Armstrong’s first small step on the Moon.
“You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you,” he said. Bezos said he thinks about rockets at lot, and one day it occurred to him that it would be great to find and restore those F-1 engines. The engineers who built them were working to send people to the Moon, and few folks at the time were thinking about posterity.
“That first stage with these gigantic engines is expendable; it’s supposed to crash into the ocean, that was the whole plan,” Bezos said.
“We’re working on changing that plan,” he continued. “I have this space company called Blue Origin; we’re trying to make reusable rockets because we don’t like throwing the hardware away.”
It took Bezos all of ten minutes of Internet searching to find the coordinates at which NASA said the Apollo 11 first stage rocket crashed. The hunt was on.
“That was going to prove to be the only easy thing about this project,” Bezos laughed. It was an incredibly complicated endeavor. Bezos Expeditions put together a team of more than 60 people who are experts in ocean recovery. They searched some 300 square miles of ocean with side-scanning sonar to find the engines and then pulled them out from under 14,000 feet of seawater, where they’d been at rest for more than 40 years.
The parts were restored at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. Much of the damage to the engines was caused not by their high-speed crash into the sea, but by silt and corrosion from four decades in salt water, though the large and highly recognizable bell-shaped nozzle extensions were badly mangled.
Great museum pieces
Geoff Nunn, the adjunct curator for space history at the museum, said the engines that drove Apollo were marvels of engineering.
“The Rocketdyne F-1 was the largest single-chambered liquid-fueled rocket ever flown,” Nunn said. “Each engine produced over a million and a half pounds of thrust and stood 18 and a half feet tall.”
That’s quite a kick. King said all of the planes in the museum’s entire collection collectively have only half that much thrust. Five F-1s launched each Saturn V.
The first piece unwrapped at the news conference this morning, still in its shrink wrap from Cosmosphere, was an injector plate from one of the Apollo 12 engines.
“The injector plate is really what is key to making the F-1 engine an engine and not just a million and a half pounds of bomb,” Nunn explained. “It’s covered in these minute holes that release fuel and oxidizer in an incredibly precise mixture in order to ensure that the combustion that occurs is smooth and controlled.”
Some of the F-1 engine components will go on public display at the museum starting Saturday and will be out until early January. The full collection will be part of a new, permanent exhibit that will open late next year or in early 2017.
For Bezos, finding and restoring artifacts like the F-1 engines is not about looking to the past.
“It’s about today and it’s about the future,” he said. “It’s about building a 21st-century version of the F-1 engine. It’s about building reusable rockets.
“Civilization for many centuries has been getting better and better, and the point of recovering an object like this is to remind us of who we are and what we can do as we move forward as a civilization.”
The video below from Bezos Expeditions tells the tale of the recovery of the F-1 engines from the briny Atlantic.