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And the Lunar Heritage Bonus Prize goes to... Jeff Bezos?!

Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon.com, is one the dotcom-billionaires who went on to become space entrepreneurs. He leads the notoriously secretive commercial spaceflight company, Blue Origin. A year ago, he announced that his team of sea experts successfully located relics of the the Apollo-era: the F-1 engines of the Saturn-V rockets at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean and that he was going to go after them. A year later, he fulfilled his promise.

A gas generator in front, a thrust chamber at the back.

The F-1 engines were, and they still are the most powerful, single-chamber, liquid-fueled rocket engines we have ever built. A single engine produced 6.77 million Newtons of thrust, burning 2500 liters of fuel every second. Five such engines propelled the Saturn-V rocket during its first two and a half minutes of flight. However, after those first minutes passed, the Saturn-IC first stage separated from the rest of the rocket and within seconds it vanished from sight, falling back into the Atlantic. (Of course it was still flying upwards for a while, decelerating, because its momentum, but the rest of the rocket accelerated further.)

An unflown F-1 in front of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne headquarters. Rocketdyne, the manufacturer of the engines, merged with Pratt & Whitney in 2005.

Now, as of today, all rockets operate in the same way. The first stage doesn't reach orbital velocity, it will fall back somewhere, either into the ocean, or in the case of Russian rockets, to the ground, turning into scrap in the process (with the exception of the shuttle and Ariane-5 boosters). Until SpaceX delivers its flyback-capable rocket stages, there is just no way avoiding this.

Butterflies and rocket parts in the Altai region.

While Russian parts are often sold for scrap and occasional rocket parts may float to the shore, engines are usually lost. But Jeff Bezos wanted to change this: he set out to find the relics of the Saturn-V, especially the mighty F-1 engines. His team successfully located some of the engines lying on the sea floor with deep sea sonars at a depth of a whopping 4.3 km. That's deeper than the Titanic's resting place! It may not be an actual lunar heritage site, but it is the closest thing to it, before any mission manages to visit the landing sites on the Moon.

A crumpled nozzle on the sea floor.

Bezos' team aboard the ship Seabed Worker recovered several mayor parts, enough to assemble and display two engines after restoration. The hardware are still in NASA possession so they will most likely be displayed at one of the space centers to tell the part of the story of the Moon landings we didn't see before: the fall through the atmosphere, the violent impact with the ocean and the four decades spent underwater.

Check out the incredible photos and video too:

A big chunk of the Saturn-IC rocket stage.

Thrust chamber at the bottom...

...and at the top of the ocean.

A heat exchanger. It was used to fuel the engine: the gas generator, a small, inefficient rocket engine drove the turbine of the turbopump. Then the exhaust passed through the heat exchanger where it heated up gasses that pressurized the fuel tanks. The exhaust then left the heat exchanger and flowed into the nozzle extension (the lower part) to cool it.

Here is a not very aesthetic attempt to show where the various pieces came from.


László Molnár

Image credits:

1.) 4-9.) Bezos Expeditions
2.) Cbl62 at en.wikipedia
3.) Jonas Bendiksen
10.) NASA

Last Updated (Sunday, 24 March 2013 12:01)

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