NASA Engineers Test Fire 1960s-Era Apollo Engine For Future Rocket Design
January 25, 2013

NASA Engineers Test Fire 1960s-Era Apollo Engine For Future Rocket Design

[Watch Video: F-1 Engine Gas Generator Testing]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Sometimes moving forward requires a little looking back. And at NASA, looking back to the days of the Apollo program is helping space engineers develop the next generation of rockets for the future of space travel. NASA resurrected the mighty F-1, an engine that powered the Saturn V rocket, to help engineers develop a heavy lift rocket for missions to the moon and beyond.

The NASA engineers, many who weren´t even born when the Saturn V was launching Apollo and its astronauts to the moon, test-fired the gas generator on the F-1 Thursday at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The test is part of a series that will look to push the engine to limits never witnessed during the Apollo-era.

The engineers used modern instruments to measure the performance and combustion properties of the engine during the test, garnering a starting point for creating a new, affordable, advanced propulsion system.

Since the cancellation of the Constellation Program, NASA is relying on its Space Launch System and the design of a new heavy lift rocket to propel missions into space. While NASA is relying on commercial entities to work on launching payloads into low Earth orbit, NASA expects SLS to replace the Space Shuttle as a heavy lift platform for launching larger cargoes deeper into space.

The F-1 engine (model # F-6049) was originally meant to propel Apollo 11 into orbit and to the moon in 1969, but was grounded due to a glitch during a test in Mississippi, and was never used again. The engine was sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it sat for years.

Nick Case, 27, one of the engineers working on the heavy lift project, was on hand during the test-firing on Thursday (Jan 24); in total, eleven test-fires have been conducted, two since the New Year began; the last was on January 10.

There are no plans to actually put the old engine back into use, but NASA officials said it could be used as a template for a new generation of rocket engines, incorporating parts of its design. Thursday´s test did not use the entire engine, but only one part of it: the gas generator. The gas generator powers the machinery to pump propellant into the main rocket chamber. While the gas generator doesn´t produce the massive orange flame and black clouds of smoke like that of a whole F-1, the firing was impressive.

It produced a plume that resembled a blow torch the size of two buses and set fire to some grass nearby the test area. It also produced a deafening roar as the generator came to life, sending a thunderous shockwave throughout the surrounding community.

"It's not small," Case said. "It's pretty beefy on its own."

"My wife and daughter were in our front yard and she said they could hear it, which was pretty cool," Case told the Associated Press after an earlier test. "We live about 15 miles away."

The NASA test-fire was conducted along with Dynetics Inc. and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which are studying NASA´s possibilities for future deep-space missions.

R.H. Coates, another engineer working on the propulsion project, said young engineers can learn a lot from the 1960s-era rocket engine, but no one wants to simply rebuild the old Saturn V.

"This wouldn't be your daddy's F-1," Coates said. "We'd use new materials and try to simplify it, update it."

Case noted that today´s technology allows things that were not possible in the 1960s, but said he has been impressed by what he learned taking part in the unused Apollo 11 engine.

While engine # F-6049 never made it onto the Apollo 11 rocket, Coates said a total of 85 F-1 engines were used on 17 Apollo flights without a single failure.

About a dozen F-1 engines remain in Huntsville. However, model # F-6049 was used because it is the most complete, acknowledged Case. “It is really an excellent booster.”

A redesigned version of the F-1 engine is unlikely for SLS, but there´s still a huge amount of value in studying the old engine and its design, said Chris Crumbly, manager of the SLS Advanced Development Office.

"This effort provided NASA with an affordable way to explore an engine design in the early development phase of the SLS program," he told Ars Technica.

The Space Shuttle Main Engines were far more efficient than the F-1s, albeit more complex in respects to design. These engines are also too expensive to use in single-use applications like SLS, whereas the F-1 has a proven design, and can easily be improved upon.

NASA plans to continue testing on reconstructed F-1 components to gain additional insight into the functional parameters of the engine.

"Our young engineers are getting their hands dirty by working with one of NASA's most famous engines," said Tom Williams, Director of the Propulsion Systems Department in Marshall Engineering Directorate. "These tests are only the beginning. As SLS research activities progress, these young NASA engineers will continue work with our industry partners to test and evaluate the benefits of using a powerful propulsion system fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene, a propellant we haven't tested with in some time."

"It's important that our workforce get hands on experience on systems like the F-1 gas generator as it helps make them smart buyers, and good stewards of what we procure from industry," said Crumbly. "As we look to the future advanced boosters for SLS we are eager to see what our partners in industry can provide as far as a more powerful and affordable solution."