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Dynetics in negotiations with NASA over using Apollo F1 engines for heavy lift

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July 31, 2012

The F-1 engine sent the Apollo Moon missions into space (Photo: NASA)

The F-1 engine sent the Apollo Moon missions into space (Photo: NASA)

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A legendary Space Age rocket engine that sent mankind to the Moon in 1969 may be brought back to power humanity’s return to that celestial body. Under a NASA request, Dynetics Inc of Huntsville, Alabama has submitted a proposal apparently studying the feasibility of reviving the F-1 rocket engine technology. Previously used to power the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions to the Moon, it could now find use in NASA’s planned Space Launch System (SLS) due to enter service in 2017.

For those of us old enough to have witnessed the lift-off of an Apollo mission in the late 60s and early 70s (yes, some of us are), the spectacle of watching a Saturn V launch was unforgettable. First, there would be a geyser of smoke and flame at the base of the giant rocket, then a few seconds later it would slowly rise like a skyscraper taking flight, and then a roar would hit you in the face that was so loud that you felt it as much as heard it even from miles away.

The authors of that iconic 20th century event were the five Rocketdyne F-1 engines in the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. At 363 feet (110.6 m) tall, and weighing 6,200,000 pounds (2,800,000 kg), the Saturn V was the tallest and heaviest rocket ever to enter service. It was also the most powerful, thanks in part to the F-1 engines.

F-1 engine stats (Photo: NASA)

These kerosene and liquid oxygen burning monsters were the largest single-chamber engines ever constructed. They were 19 ft (5.79 m) tall, had a diameter of 12.3 ft (3.76 m) and weighed a staggering 8,500 lb (8,391 kg). The five-engine configuration used on Apollo burned for only two and a half minutes at lift-off. During their brief flight, they gulped down 15 tons (13.6 tonnes) of fuel and oxygen supplied by turbopumps equivalent in power to 30 diesel locomotives, and put out a thrust of 1,522,000 lbf (2,063,555 Nm). That’s enough to squash the astronauts with four and a half g’s ... and it all ended with the spent first stage dropping from a height of 38 miles (61 km) to burn up in the atmosphere. That’s gratitude.

The F-1 engines lifted 13 Saturn Vs into orbit including all the Apollo Moon missions before their final turn of lofting Skylab into orbit in 1973, the heaviest payload ever carried by any rocket. To this day, the F-1 is still the most powerful single-chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed. After Apollo, NASA concentrated on low Earth orbits, so the power of the F-1 wasn’t needed for almost 40 years, but now with NASA turning its eyes toward manned deep space missions to the asteroids and Mars, that power is needed again.

The planned Space Launch System is intended as NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket for putting large payloads such as the Orion spacecraft into orbit or launching manned deep-space missions. The initial 70-ton (63.5-tonne) configuration with a lift capacity of 130 tons (118 tonnes) will use a pair of solid rocket boosters similar to those of the Space Shuttle, but the main thrust will be provided by extremely powerful liquid-fuel engines in the main booster stack that will be more powerful than any in the current US inventory.

"The initial SLS heavy-lift rocket begins with the proven hardware, technology and capabilities we have today and will evolve over time to a more capable launch vehicle through competitive opportunities," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "While the SLS team is making swift progress on the initial configuration and building a solid baseline, we also are looking ahead to enhance and upgrade future configurations of the heavy lift vehicle. We want to build a system that will be upgradable and used for decades."

As part of this effort, NASA requested proposals to improve the affordability, reliability and performance of the SLS. One of the six currently under consideration is titled "F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task" by Dynetics Inc. Though details have not yet been made public, Dynetics appears to be studying the feasibility of reviving the F-1 engine in some updated form to use on the SLS. If this turns out to be the case, then when SLS makes its first launch in 2017, Cape Canaveral may once again have its teeth rattled by the engines of the mighty Saturn V sending a new generation of astronauts to the stars.

The contract is currently under negotiations and a Dynetics representative told Gizmag that a press release will be issued after the final awards are announced.

Source: Dynetics Inc.

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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8 Comments

It would be nice to silence the conspiracy nuts that claim that the F1 engines don't work.

Slowburn
31st July, 2012 @ 03:46 pm PDT

This is nothing more than a bullet on a PowerPoint presentation.

I'm also not convinced it's a great idea, given that technology has moved forwards quite a bit in the intervening 50 years. And can you even get the smaller parts for the F1 any more?

Jon A.
31st July, 2012 @ 03:50 pm PDT

re; Jon A.

Nobody has worked on developing rockets of this size in those 50 years either so there has not been much advancement and there is no reason to think that the advancements that are relevant can not be incorporated into the designs.

If you have the blueprints it is getting cheaper to get limited number production runs or even one off components manufactured.

Slowburn
31st July, 2012 @ 06:56 pm PDT

Better let them old engines lay in pension and use the old Soviet moon rocket engines that are over 20% more effecient is way better. Then again NASA bought up the remaining stock and are using them. Tho under a new name.

Toffe Kaal
31st July, 2012 @ 11:46 pm PDT

re; Toffe Kaal

Would these old Soviet moon rocket engines be the NK-15 which the N-1 rocket had thirty of on the first stage alone?

And if I recall correctly not one of the N-1 rockets survived until first stage burnout. This would not be a sign that it is a good idea to copy the design.

Given engines of equal reliability the fewer engines used on a rocket the better. Assuming the NK-15 and the F-1 engines have the same failure rate the Saturn first stage is six times less likely to fail as the N-1 first stage.

Slowburn
1st August, 2012 @ 02:10 am PDT

Thought the space shuttle engines were just a powerful ?

Leonard Foster Jr
1st August, 2012 @ 02:45 pm PDT

re; Leonard Foster Jr

The Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters are more powerful but they can not be throttled or shut down ofter ignition until burnout nor can larger fuel tanks be added to increase burn time.

With multiple liquid fuel engines if one engine suffers a non-catastrophic malfunction the fuel can be burned through the other engines which is why the Shuttle had three smaller liquid fueled engines instead of of one of the liquid fueled J-2 engines which the Saturn V used in its second and third stage. It is worth noting that the shuttle's main engines gained in power as the program went from specifications to hardware.

Slowburn
1st August, 2012 @ 05:55 pm PDT

Revamp engines in 3D, improve thrust, add vectoring. Miniturize controls, etc & u have a new F1 engine with LESS weight than orig.

Stephen N Russell
23rd August, 2012 @ 06:55 pm PDT
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