Apollo Rocket Engines Pulled From Sea — But Where Will They Land?

Scientists retrieved pieces of rocket engines that may have launched the first man to the moon. Will any of them end up at the Air and Space Museum?

A team of scientists has recovered pieces of a rocket engine that launched Apollo astronauts to outer space.
A team of scientists has recovered pieces of a rocket engine that launched Apollo astronauts to outer space. Photo by NASA, courtesy of Flickr

Parts of the F-1 rocket engines that may have launched the first space mission to put a man on the moon were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday.

Organized by billionaire Jeff Bezos, a team of scientists has spent the past three weeks off the coast of Florida retrieving components of submerged engines from NASA’s Apollo space launches. The pieces have lost the serial numbers that identify the specific spacecraft to which they belonged.

The team had plenty of underwater pieces to choose from; 13 F-1-powered Apollo rocket ships with five engines each blasted into orbit from Florida’s John F. Kennedy space center between 1967 to 1973, dropping the spent engines into the ocean during their ascent. In a blog post this week, Bezos called the remains “an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines.”

Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the private rocket company Blue Origin, announced a year ago that he intended to bring back at least one engine from the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969. He made the attempt by guiding remotely operated vehicles almost three miles beneath the ocean’s surface to collect the various pieces. Without serial numbers, though, they must now rely on restoration efforts to find clues to the engines’ former spacecraft. There is no public timetable as to when it will be determined which mission these engines were a part of.

“We’re bringing home enough major components to fashion displays of two flown F-1 engines,” Bezos wrote in his blog. “The upcoming restoration will stabilize the hardware and prevent further corrosion. We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface. We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing.”

Remote Operated Vehicles recovering Apollo F-1 engines 3 miles beneath Atlantic (Bezos Expeditions)

Paul Ceruzzi, chair of the Space History division at the National Air and Space Museum, says it would be “very significant” if the engine pieces’ connection to Apollo 11 were confirmed. “The actual stuff that went to the moon with Apollo 11 is really small, so this would be one of the few original pieces from that mission.”

They would have a tremendous emotional impact as well, he adds: “Here we have this mission that was so outrageous at the time and seems even more so today, and yet we did it.”

Bezos has stated that he hopes the restored engines will make their way to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, but Ceruzzi says that parts of the engines also could end up in the Air and Space Museum. The murkiness of the laws governing international waters and the artifacts discovered within them will likely delay such a decision for a while. ”It remains a possibility,” he explains, “but we won’t know until their ownership is settled, until we find out whether or not they are from Apollo 11 and of course until NASA offers them to us.”

According to Ceruzzi, the Air and Space Museum plans to refurbish its Apollo 11 exhibit sometime in the future, possibly in tandem with the 50th anniversary of the spacecraft’s moon landing in 2019. An authentic engine from the spacecraft could “give visitors a sense of the magnitude of the whole Apollo mission, and be a way to get people into that story,” he says.

“It’s all very early right now,” he emphasizes. “But there’s a genuine excitement about the recovery.”

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