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Rocketdyne F-1: The Big Block Muscle Car V8 of Rocket Engines
Nearly every famous motor vehicle has an equally iconic engine. This applies to cars and bikes on land, boats in the water, and planes in the sky. But we'd like to amend that group and add space-rated booster rockets.

Rocketdyne F-1: The Big Block Muscle Car V8 of Rocket Engines

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NASA's SLS carrying the Artemis I Orion Crew Capsule is slated to launch tomorrow, August 29th, between 8:33 and 10:33 in the morning. But for all that rocket's powerful solid rocket boosters, Space Shuttle derived RS-25 main engines and eight-and-a-bit million pounds of thrust at its disposal. There would be no SLS, no Space Shuttle engines, and no Apollo without the Rocketdyne F-1 liquid-fueled rocket engine.

As many as half a million people across all 50 U.S. states were employed during the Apollo program from 1961 to 1972. Of those, an undoubtedly significant portion was dedicated to the construction of the Saturn V. Until 2022, it was the most powerful booster rocket system ever designed. At the heart and soul of that rocket's first stage were five of these F-1 engines. Those engines alone jetted 33,000 kN (7,500,000 lbf) of trust.

The Rocketdyne F-1 engine was like the big block V8 muscle car engine of the rocket engine sector. An oversized, tremendously powerful testament to the time-honored American saying, "no replacement for displacement." We're not sure what the F-1 dimensions translate to in cubic inches, but we're sure the figure only backs up the muscle car engine in a rocket ship comparison if we could figure it out.

We can only imagine that makes the RS-25 engines on the Shuttle and SLS kind of like LS V8s by comparison, but we digress. Originally conceived in 1955, even before the founding of NASA itself, the F-1 engine was a military project in the beginning. A project funded by the U.S. Air Force, largely off the back of recently acquired German rocket technology and many of the engineers who built them. Chief among them was Wernher von Braun, the father of the V2 rocket and the Saturn V.

If you can believe it, the Air Force sidelined R&D for the F-1 project at some point in the late 50s, citing their complete lack of need for such a colossal and powerful rocket at that point. Lame, we know. But it wouldn't stay that way for long. It just needed a dedicated government space agency to covet the thing like a prized stallion. That's exactly what NASA, founded in 1958, turned out to be.

With dimensions of 18.5 (5.6-m) feet tall, 12.2 feet wide (3.7-m), and a dry weight of 18,500 lb (8,400 kg), the single combustion chamber rocket engine used a combination of rocket-grade kerosene and cryogenically frozen liquid oxygen as its fuel and oxidizer. Fed through a series of turbopumps into one massive combustion chamber at a pressure of 70 bars (1,015 psi; 7 MPa). Said turbopump was required to handle both exceptionally cold and infernally hot temperature conditions to compensate for the cryogenically chilled fuel and the intense heat generated when said fuel goes boom.

As you can imagine, cranking out that level of power and heat caused engineering nightmares. We're shocked people with slide rulers, and above-average intelligence were able to solve without a computer's help, but it's just another remarkable story in the checkered history of the Apollo program. Not that there weren't a fair amount of catastrophic failures between its first tests in 1963 and the end of the Apollo program in 1972. But after nearly two decades of development, Rocketdyne engineers managed to work out the flaws beautifully.

Across 13 Apollo missions, 65 F-1 engines were used across the duration of the program. Today, spare parts and new-old-stock, never used complete rocket engines are on display at museums across the world and in multiple U.S. States. Perhaps none in quite so wonderful company as the one on display in Rocket Garden on the sight of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Only a short bus ride from LC-39, where that engine was slated to ignite and help bring American astronauts to the stars.

With the SLS slated to launch less than 24 hours from now, it's all too fitting to shout out to the engine that helped make this all possible.

Editor's note: Article contains combination of NASA and self taken photos. This Article was not sponsored, supported, or endorsed by NASA, the Kennedy Space Center, the Artemis I mission or any third party.

 
 
 
 
 

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