The Power Beneath the Saturn V

As the Saturn V F-1 engine moves into a new gallery, visitors gain a whole new perspective.

the Rocketdyne F-1 engine
Moving the Rocketdyne F-1 engine into the new Destination Moon gallery took an entire day. Suspending it from the ceiling took another 10 hours. The hardest part? A sharp left-hand turn out of the old gallery, and another into the new exhibit space.

It burned for a total of just 192.6 seconds during four static tests in 1963, each time producing 1.5 million pounds of thrust. And although this particular Rocketdyne F-1 engine never left Earth, it helped make possible the Saturn V launch that would carry astronauts to the moon.

The engine, donated by Rocketdyne to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1970, was one of the original artifacts in the Apollo to the Moon gallery when the Museum opened in 1976. “The gallery was built right after the Apollo program,” says curator Michael Neufeld, “and it was designed with the assumption that the public understood the program, that they’d just experienced it.” But now almost 50 years have passed, and audiences have changed. “We have to create an exhibit that explains why we went to the moon, and what came out of that exploration,” says Neufeld, “and design it for a population that didn’t experience it personally.” The new Destination Moon gallery, slated to open in 2022, will place the lunar missions within their broader historical, cultural, and political context.

The F-1 engine, the first artifact to move into the new space, can now be seen in an entirely new light. In the old gallery, the F-1 was displayed horizontally, surrounded by mirrors to create the illusion of the five engines clustered at the base of every Saturn V.

Now the 18-foot-long, 18,340-pound behemoth is suspended from the gallery ceiling, in order to give visitors the illusion that they’re looking up at the rocket from the launch pad.

The pre-move planning lasted weeks, says Zachary Guttendorf, a supervisory museum specialist. At the end of those plans, an entire day was devoted to moving the engine—on a crawler and multiple dollies—from the old gallery to the new.

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking part was lifting the F-1 up to the ceiling, where it had to be welded into place. “Even though we’ve done all the math, and we all know it’s going to work,” says Guttendorf, “this object has been sitting unmoving for decades. And when they pick it up, and it’s being held entirely by two gantries, you just hope nothing goes weird.”

The gallery will first explain ancient ideas about the moon, says Neufeld, then outline the beginnings of the space race, telling the story of lunar exploration all the way up to the contemporary era.

The F-1 is a large part of that story. “This F-1 was a test article,” says Neufeld, “built at a time when we were trying to fix the problem of combustion instability” (pressure swings in the engine caused, in part, by the vibrations produced when the rocket’s liquid oxygen and rocket fuel combined).

Through years of analysis and testing, engineers eliminated the problem, producing an engine reliable enough to be trusted with the lives of astronauts. “The F-1 never failed in flight once,” says Neufeld.

“It’s really exciting that Destination Moon has come about,” says Neufeld. “It will be a step forward in how we tell the whole Apollo story.” And a big part of that story is the 65 F-1 engines that propelled 13 Saturn V rockets off the launch pad.

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This story is a selection from the August issue of Air & Space magazine

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