The Engines That Propelled Us Into Space, Recovered From the Ocean Floor

For the Apollo engines, it's one if by space, two if by sea.
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A Saturn V thrust chamber, found on the Atlantic floor (Bezos Expeditions)

On July 16, 1969, a rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida launched three humans into space, destination moon. They were hurtled away from Earth with the help of NASA's Saturn V rocket -- and with the help of, at the rocket's base, five Rocketdyne F-1 engines. This was a lot of help. According to a 1965 press release [pdf], "The F-1 is the most powerful rocket engine to be ordered into production in the United States. It is a single chamber, liquid propellant engine of conventional, proven design developing 1,500,000 pounds of thrust." And despite all the advances we've made since then in the broad field of rocket science, the F-1 remains the most powerful single-chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed.

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A detail of the F-1 engine (NASA)

And yet. The engines, like so many of the instruments we devise to send ourselves into space, were useful only briefly: The F-1s had a practical shelf life of about 165 seconds. After the Saturn V and its passengers had gotten the boost they needed, the engines were jettisoned: five scarred, metal cones sent hurtling into the waters of the Atlantic. 

The engines were relegated to the sea floor -- until now. Two of the Saturn V engines have now been recovered from their watery, and only temporary, graves. And they've been surfaced by Jeff Bezos. (Yes, that Jeff Bezos.) The Amazon CEO's other company, the space technology firm Blue Origin, has recovered a pair of first-stage engines so they can be studied, restored, and, later, displayed to the public. ("The objects themselves," Bezos says, "are gorgeous.")

The engines' deep-sea recovery is the product of a long process of maritime archaeology: Last year -- almost exactly a year ago -- Bezos and his team announced that they had, using sonar, located the Saturn V engines in the depths of the Atlantic. Once they made that discovery, they set to work getting those objects to the surface -- with the help of remote operated vehicles and a large crew of humans. 

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An F-1 thruster chamber, newly recovered (Bezos Expeditions)

As Bezos describes it

The technology used for the recovery is in its own way as otherworldly as the Apollo technology itself. The Remotely Operated Vehicles worked at a depth of more than 14,000 feet, tethered to our ship with fiber optics for data and electric cables transmitting power at more than 4,000 volts. We on the team were often struck by poetic echoes of the lunar missions. The buoyancy of the ROVs looks every bit like microgravity. The blackness of the horizon. The gray and colorless ocean floor. Only the occasional deep sea fish broke the illusion.

Kind of makes you want to be a passenger on one of those ROVs, doesn't it? The ocean floor, a museum of NASA relics! There's a steampunk quality to the bronze-hued engines, a reminder of the eras they span and the dreams they've embodied. As Bezos puts it: "We've seen an underwater wonderland -- an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program."

Here's video of the recovery, via Bezos Expeditions and Boing Boing:

Hat tip Chris Heller

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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