Amazon.com founder and the man behind Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos, has recovered parts of the F-1 rocket engines used in the Apollo missions. Recovered by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) from the multi-purpose offshore vessel Seabed Worker, they were brought up from a depth of over 14,000 feet (4,267 m) over a three week period. Bezos has been working on the project for over a year in hopes of recovering the engines used to launch Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969. However, the serial numbers for the recovered engines are missing or partly missing, so identifying which mission the rockets are from will be difficult.
The problem with preserving artifacts from the early days of the Space Age is that voyages into space tend to be a bit hard on the equipment. What isn't flung off into the void never to return generally either ends up being destroyed on renentry in a blaze of glory or crashing into the sea. Unless it's designed for reuse, what does come back to Earth is usually not good for much else than a museum exhibit. It’s a sobering thought that every Apollo mission began with a rocket the size of a skyscraper and ended with a charred capsule the size of a garden shed.
The F-1 engines used to lift the Apollo spacecraft off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in the 1960s and ‘70s were as historic as the sails that propelled the Santa Maria. Not only were they instrumental in planting the first footprints on another celestial body, they were also record setters in their own right.
Putting out 1,522,000 ft-lb (6.77 MN) of thrust, they remain to this day the most powerful single-chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed. They were purpose built for the Saturn V and five of them powered the first stage booster, but after less than three minutes of glory their reward was to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean where they were left to corrode for over four decades.
The technology used to find and recover the engines is the product of half a century of development in underwater archaeology. The exact details of the search have not been made public, but aside from sonar it is probable that towed magnetometers were also used to detect the metallic objects and build up a 3D map to aid recovery. This latter point is particularly important because it wasn't simply a matter of finding the engines, but being able to return to them again and again while salvage operations were underway.
The expedition’s ROVs relied on fiber optic cables for data transmission and 4,000 volt electric cables to supply power. The ROV pilots not only had to contend with the fact the engines broke apart on impact with the ocean surface and the various components were half buried by shifting silts, but also with keeping the tethers from tangling in the strong currents. Despite the challenges, they still managed to use the ROVs’ manipulator arms to extract the components and secure them with slings. In all, the operation was very similar to deep sea recovery operations that were once heroic, but are now fairly routine.
Though Bezos and his team have recovered them, the rocket engines remain NASA property under international salvage law. Bezos plans to conserve and restore the engines and says that enough components were recovered to display two F-1 engines. However, the materials used to build the engines and the effects of over forty years in seawater will make conservation a challenge.
In a statement, NASA sent Bezos and his team congratulations saying, “We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff's desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display.”