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Engines Once Powered Astronauts To Moon, Now On Display In Hutchinson

The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson launches the Apollo F-1 Conservation Project Friday with a grand opening in their new SpaceWorks Observation Gallery.

Cosmosphere visitors will be able to follow the journey of the historic Apollo F-1 engines from lift off to their fiery violent dissent back to Earth.

Bezos Expeditions recovered pieces of the original F-1 engines at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where the historic artifacts had been for more than 40 years. The F-1 engine is what powered the Saturn V rocket, which was used to launch astronauts to the moon.

Bezos Expeditions commissioned the Cosmosphere to do the conservation work, which is expected to take approximately two years.

The Process

Since their arrival at the Cosmosphere on March 25, the rocket engine artifacts have undergone initial cleaning with thousands of gallons of freshwater and anti-corrosion agents to remove ocean debris and prevent further decay.

“We’re trying to stabilize or halt the current corrosive process,” says Cosmosphere President Jim Remar. "Once that has been accomplished, we’ll systematically disassemble the artifacts and begin cleaning them and removing corrosion.”

Ultimately, the pieces will be sprayed with a lacquer product that will seal the artifacts and prevent oxidization or moisture attack.

Each piece will undergo a detailed conservation process, including cleaning, photography, 3-D scanning and CAD modeling to determine its pre-treatment condition. 

The Apollo F-1 project is conserving the artifacts in their current state, instead of restoring them to original condition.

“With conservation, you want to preserve it as it is because the artifact tells a story," says Remar. "And you want to be able to allow the public to see it and to appreciate the full story of that artifact.”

Long Way To Fall

Tom Aldag, director of research and development for Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research or NIAR, is also lending resources in support of the conservation effort. Aldag says there was real concern about what kind of condition the artifacts would be when they found them on the bottom of the ocean. The fell for nearly 42 miles.

“That was really a violent impact," he says. "What we tried to do was apply some aerodynamics principles to understand how fast they were going when they hit the ocean.”

The F-1 engine was 19 feet tall, 12 feet wide and weighed approximately 18,000 pounds. Initially, Remar says, he was hoping he would receive a fairly intact engine.

“The impact with the surface of the ocean was extremely violent and literally ripped these massive engines apart," he says. "So instead of having complete engines we have prime components.”

No Small Feat

The largest prime component at the Cosmosphere is the thrust structure of the thrust chamber. It is approximately 6 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter and weighs 2,000 to 3,000 thousand pounds. Five of those structures will be conserved.

In all, more than 25,000 pounds of artifacts were collected from the bottom of the ocean. A hoisting gantry system has been set up in the conservation lab to move the artifacts.

Typically, Remar says the public has not been allowed to watch conservation projects at the Cosmosphere. But access was granted during the restoring of Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule in 1999, which he says was a huge success, so they're doing it again.

Remar says the new observation gallery will allow visitors to watch the conservation process live. There will also be information on the Apollo project, the F-1 engine, and a video showing the recovery and launches of the Saturn V.

Why This Matters

Aldag says the engines are so incredible and were so important to the Apollo program and bringing them off the ocean floor is extremely interesting.

When asked about how the artifacts could inspire future generations of space explorers, Tom Aldag reflected on his own childhood when his parents woke him up to watch the first man on the moon.

“They launched rockets into space, we recovered them from three miles below the ocean surface," he says. "That’s exciting stuff for young scientists and hopefully that will get them excited in any of the sciences.”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man who walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Remar says that’s what so significant and historic about the project.

“These engines powered the vehicle that took man to the moon and into space and so for us to be able to conserve and preserve these for generations to come is extremely exciting," he says. "And we’re just honored to be a part of it.”