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NASA engineers test fire a key part of a rocket engine left over from the 1960s-era Apollo moon missions Thursday.
Jay Reeves/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 1/25/2013
HUNTSVILLE, Ala.--A vintage rocket engine built to blast the first U.S. lunar mission into Earth's orbit more than 40 years ago is again rumbling across the Southern landscape.
The engine, known to NASA engineers as No. F-6049, was supposed to help propel Apollo 11 into orbit in 1969, when NASA sent Neil Armstrong and two other astronauts to the moon for the first time. The flight went off without a hitch, but no thanks to the engine--it was grounded because of a glitch during a test in Mississippi and later sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it sat for years.
Now, young engineers who weren't even born when Armstrong took his one small step are using the bell-shaped motor in tests to determine if technology from Apollo's reliable Saturn V design can be improved for the next generation of U.S. missions back to the moon and beyond by the 2020s.
They're learning to work with technical systems and propellants not used since before the start of the space shuttle program, which first launched in 1981.
Nick Case, 27, and other engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on Thursday completed a series of 11 test-firings of the F-6049's gas generator, a jet-like rocket which produces 30,000 pounds of thrust and was used as a starter for the engine. They are trying to see whether a second-generation version of the Apollo engine could produce even more thrust and be operated with a throttle for deep-space exploration.
There are no plans to send the old engine into space, but it could become a template for a new generation of motors incorporating parts of its design.
In NASA-speak, the old 18-foot-tall motor is called an F-1 engine. During moon missions, five of them were arranged at the base of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V system and fired together to power the rocket off the ground toward Earth orbit.
Thursday's test used one part of the engine, the gas generator, which powers the machinery to pump propellant into the main rocket chamber. It doesn't produce the massive orange flame or clouds of smoke like that of a whole F-1, but the sound was deafening as engineers fired the mechanism in an outdoor test stand on a cool, sunny afternoon.