Launch of the Skylab Space Station. Credits: NASA on The Commons

Rocketdyne F-1 our golden chariot to the sky

Just as the ancient god Apollo had his golden chariot, mankind has built his vehicle to carry him to the stars

The Saturn V rocket is one of the most iconic and powerful rockets ever built, and its F-1 engines were a crucial part of its success. They were employed in the first stage of the launcher, these engines were responsible for lifting the Saturn V off the ground and getting it into space, and they remain some of the largest and most powerful rocket engines ever built.

Head to the sky

The F-1 engine was developed by Rocketdyne, now known as Aerojet Rocketdyne, after merging with Aerojet in 2013. The engine was designed to provide the Saturn V rocket – a beast 110.6 m (363 ft) tall and weighing 2970 t (6 540 000 lb) – with the thrust it needed to get off the ground and into space. The engine was first tested in 1959, withthe first full-scale firing takingplace in 1960. 

In 1962, was successfully conducted the first full-thrust, long-duration F-1 engine test . Credts: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
In 1962, the first full-thrust long-duration F-1 engine test was successfully conducted. Credits: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

The artist

The engineer Wernher von Braun was placed in charge of the works. Considered the father of rocketry, he was a German engineer naturalized in the United States after the Second World War, he was the creator and builder of the first German V2 rocket built to bomb London. After the war, he was deported to America, working first with the US Army and then at NASA.

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During the frenetic space race, he was director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center as well as designer of the Saturn V and, of course, its impressive engines, the true beating heart of the whole project.

Doctor Wernher von Braun near the giant Saturn V rocket Credits: NASA
Doctor Wernher von Braun near the giant Saturn V rocket Credits: NASA

The project on paper

The F-1 engine is a liquid-fueled engine that uses a mixture of LOX (liquid oxygen) and RP-1 as its propellant (a type of low-sulfur refined kerosene). Each engine is 5.7 meters (19 feet) tall and 3.7 meters (12 feet) in diameter, and it weighs over 8 tons (18,000 pounds). Every single engine produces a maximum thrust of 6770 kN (1.5 million pounds) at sea level. All five, together in their 150 seconds of operation, take the Saturn V to an altitude of about 62km (28 miles) with a speed of about 8700 km/h!

(1967) Smoke and flames belch from the huge S-1C test stand Credits: NASA on The Commons
(1967) Smoke and flames belch from the huge S-1C test stand. Credits: NASA on The Commons Credits:

Fire to the dust!

The F-1 engine was a marvel of engineering, and it required groundbreaking innovations to function. The engine used a unique fuel injection system with a turbopump which was capable of delivering a total of 1565 liters per second of liquid oxygen and 976 liters per second of RP-1 into the combustion chamber, which allowed it to deliver the massive amounts of fuel needed to produce such high levels of thrust. Additionally, the engine used a regenerative cooling system that circulated fuel through the engine’s walls to keep them from overheating. 

Rocketdyne F-1 chart showing all the internal system of the engine. Credits: National Air and space museum
Rocketdyne F-1 chart showing all the internal systems of the engine. Credits: National Air and space museum

One of the key innovations in the F-1 engine was its use of an “injector plate,” which ensured that the fuel and oxidizer mixed efficiently. This ingenious design produced a more stable and controlled combustion allowing the engine to generate maximum thrust without the risk of explosion.

Saturn V first stage, formally known as S-IC on display at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credits: Ian Abbott
Saturn V first stage, formally known as S-IC on display at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credits: Ian Abbott

A little challenging sparkle

Despite its advanced design, the F-1 engine was not without its challenges. The engine was notoriously difficult to start, and it required a complex ignition system that used a series of small rockets to ignite the main engine. The ignition is ensured by a cartridge containing a hypergolic fluid which, in contact with oxygen, ignites spontaneously.

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Additionally, the engine was prone to failures, and generally, in the space industries it was not uncommon for individual engines to fail during a launch. However, these issues were largely resolved over the course of the Saturn V program, with tons of tests over tests and the F-1 engine proved to be a reliable and powerful engine.

Close view of the rocketdyne F-1 engines during firsts moments of Apollo 11 mission. Credits: NASA
Close view of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines during the first moments of the Apollo 11 mission. Credits: NASA

A successful career

The Saturn V rocket and its F-1 engines were used in some of history’s most important space missions. The F-1 engines performed perfectly during the Apollo missions, launching a total of 13 Saturn V rockets from Kennedy Space Center between 1967 and 1973, including the launch of the Skylab space station into Earth orbit. 

The most famous of these launches was Apollo 11, the mission that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon and allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to become the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface. The F-1 engine played a crucial role in each of these missions, and it helped to establish the United States as a dominant force in space exploration.

Launch of the Skylab Space Station. Credits: NASA on The Commons
Launch of the Skylab Space Station. Credits: NASA on The Commons

Eternal glory

In conclusion, the F-1 engine was a groundbreaking achievement in rocket engineering, overcoming immense challenges that required years of development, incredible men, and funds and it remains one of the most powerful rocket engines ever built.

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Icon of an era that inspired generations of future engineers by admiring the photos of the Saturn V take-offs or listening to the roar of its engines. Its development and use in the Saturn V rocket helped to establish the United States as a leader in space exploration, and it remains a testament to the power of human ingenuity and innovation.

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Federico Coppola

Federico Coppola

A third-year student of Histoy and Italian Modern literature at Federico II in Naples, passionate about space, writing, and with an incurable dream of flying up through the clouds to reach the stars.
Admin of the Instagram page Italian_space_meme

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