The Past (and Future) of Rocketdyne’s F-1 Rocket Engine

To fuel its long trips to the Moon, NASA turned to Rocketdyne’s F-1 engine, a machine that was well ahead of its time

Rocket, F-1, NASA, Air Force, Apollo, space, engine, rocketry, Space XDesigned with an eye towards the future, Rocketdyne’s F-1 rocket engine was developed in the 1950s for use in future missions to the Moon. Generating over 1.5 million pounds-force of thrust, five F-1 engines made up the first stage of each Saturn V rocket—the Apollo program’s chief launch vehicle.

Originally developed to service the Air Force’s requirement for a large rocket engine, Rocketdyne’s engineers designed two prototype engines, the E-1 and F-1. During early static fire tests, engineers concluded that the E-1’s technology wasn’t sufficient for the Air Force’s needs and the larger F-1 became the focus of future development.

Shortly after the E-1’s initial static fire tests, the Air Force abandoned its large engine program and a new player on the scene swooped in to save the foundering rocket project.

Realizing the utility of such a large engine, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reignited the F-1 program, and by 1957 the test firing of F-1 components was well underway. Throughout the end of the decade the F-1 was continually refined, and in March of 1959 the first static firing of the full engine was successfully completed.

Ultimately, the F-1 would measure in at 5.8m (19 ft) tall with a 3.7m (12.3 ft) diameter nozzle. When at full force, the 8,400 kg (18,500 lb) rocket would burn for 165 seconds, producing more than enough thrust to launch the Saturn V through its first stage.

Although testing of the F-1 continued through 1965, NASA took delivery of the first rocket in October of 1963. Throughout the course of the Apollo program at least 65 F-1 engines were launched, driving every major achievement of the Apollo era.

To this day, the F-1 remains the most powerful single-nozzle liquid-fueled rocket ever launched. While feasibility studies have been conducted to determine whether the F-1 would be a good fit for future trips to the Moon and Mars, none have moved beyond the conceptual phase.

Given the rise of private, proprietary rocket technology like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket system, it’s likely that the F-1 will remain a testament to engineering achievement and not a path towards deeper exploration of the stars. Without the fundamental design achievements of the F-1 program, however, it is hard to imagine where modern space exploration would be today.

Image and Video Courtesy of NASA