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.

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.

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