At the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, a team of young NASA engineers are disassembling, examining, reassembling, and firing the F-1 — the most powerful rocket engine ever built by the United States.
The F-1 was originally used by the Saturn V — the rocket, constructed by Boeing, North American Aviation, and Douglas, used by NASA’s Apollo and Skylab programs. With 1.5 million pounds (6.7 MN) of thrust, the F-1, built way back in the 50s, remains the most powerful single-chamber rocket engine ever created. With five F-1 engines, Saturn V, which first launched in 1967, is still the largest and most powerful rocket ever created. Each F-1 engine burned 3,357 gallons (12,710 liters) of propellant every second. (Skip to the four- and nine-minute marks in the video below for some idea of what these engines look like in practice.)
The NASA engineers are disassembling an F-1 engine for the simple reason that they want to learn more about it. According to NASA, these engineers weren’t even born when the F-1 engine last flew. The hope is that by analyzing the F-1, NASA will be in a better position to design the engines that will be used by the Space Launch System. The SLS replaces the Space Transport System (the Space Shuttle), and will eventually take humans beyond low-Earth orbit (something that hasn’t been done since 1972).
So far, the team of engineers has analyzed the gas generator from an F-1 engine stored at Marshall, and one that was being stored at the Smithsonian museum. The gas generator is a “small” (55,000 horsepower) engine that drives the rocket’s main turbine, which is tasked with pumping almost three tons of propellant into thrust chamber. They cleaned the parts up, and then used a structured light 3D scanner to create 3D CAD drawings that could be further analyzed on a computer. Structured light is the same method that Kinect uses to work out the dimensions of its environment. This process allowed the engineers to identify which parts of the rocket engine could be recreated or enhanced using 3D printing.
The engineers then rigged the generator up with some modern instrumentation, and fired it up to gain yet more information about its inner workings (video above). “Modern instrumentation, testing and analysis improvements learned over 40 years, and digital scanning and imagery techniques are allowing us to obtain baseline data on performance and combustion stability,” says NASA’s Nick Case. “We are even gathering data not collected when the engine was tested originally in the 1960s.”
Moving forward, an entire gas generator will be built with 3D printing, and then an entire F-1 engine — with the new gas generator — will be built and tested.