March 28, 2012 at 2:37 PM ET
Amazon.com's billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, says he's funded a successful effort to locate the mammoth rocket engines that sent the Apollo 11 mission on the first leg of its mission to the moon — and now he's planning to bring them up from the Atlantic Ocean floor.
It's shaping up as the latest high-rolling undersea adventure, alongside film director James Cameron's dive to the deepest spot in the Pacific, British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic expedition and the Deepsearch submersible project backed by Google's Eric Schmidt.
Bezos' effort plays off his longtime fascination with outer space — a passion that is also driving his decade-old Blue Origin rocket venture. Like Blue Origin, the undersea recovery project is being funded from the dot-com billionaire's personal fortune.
Destined for museums
The five F-1 rocket engines were on the first stage of Apollo 11's Saturn 5 rocket, which dropped into the Atlantic just minutes after liftoff in 1969. In an online statement, Bezos acknowledges that the undersea artifacts, like other hardware associated with the space effort, still belongs to NASA — and he imagines that one of the engines would go on display at the Smithsonian. But in today's announcement, he says he's asked NASA to consider having another engine sent to the Museum of Flight — which happens to be in Seattle, Amazon.com's hometown.
Rocketdyne built more of the 18-foot-tall F-1 engines than were needed for the Apollo missions, and some of those surplus engines have been placed on display, either attached to Saturn stages or as standalone exhibits. One can be seen at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, for example, and there's another at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
The idea of recovering Apollo 11's engines has been debated for more than 10 years, ever since Project Mercury's Liberty Bell 7 space capsule was raised from the Atlantic seafloor in 1999, said Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace website and an expert on space history and collectibles. NASA and the U.S. Navy had a good idea where the Saturn 5's first stage splashed down, which probably served as a clue for Bezos' search, he said.
In his statement, Bezos said the engines were located using "state-of-the-art deep-sea sonar," but it's not yet fully clear whether the sonar operation was done using deep-diving underwater robots — as was the case with the recent Titanic mapping project — or strictly with surface equipment. A spokesman for Amazon.com told me that no further details about the project would be shared today.
Pearlman was particularly intrigued to learn that Bezos was already in discussions with NASA about the potential disposition of the rocket engines. "If I were a betting fellow, I would say that Bezos is closer to mounting an expedition than the statement seems to imply," he said. "Which is really cool."
Lessons from Liberty Bell
Curt Newport, the underwater salvage expert who orchestrated the raising of Liberty Bell 7, said bringing up the engines would pose significant challenges. He assumes that the engines are among other pieces of debris from the Saturn 5's first stage that are spread across the sea floor. "The information I found suggested that [the stage] broke up due to aerodynamic forces before it hit the water," he told me.
Verifying that the engines are from Apollo 11 rather than a different Apollo mission would require checking parts numbers against NASA's database, he said. And bringing up the engines would not be a trivial task.
"If they're intact, they're like nine tons each," Newport told me. "That is not going to be easy to bring to the surface."
Bezos said in his statement that the condition of the engines was not yet known.
Here's the full statement from Bezos, via his Bezos Expeditions website.
"The F-1 rocket engine is still a modern wonder — one and a half million pounds of thrust, 32 million horsepower, and burning 6,000 pounds of rocket grade kerosene and liquid oxygen every second. On July 16, 1969, the world watched as five particular F-1 engines fired in concert, beginning the historic Apollo 11 mission. Those five F-1s burned for just a few minutes, and then plunged back to Earth into the Atlantic Ocean, just as NASA planned. A few days later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
"Millions of people were inspired by the Apollo Program. I was 5 years old when I watched Apollo 11 unfold on television, and without any doubt it was a big contributor to my passions for science, engineering, and exploration. A year or so ago, I started to wonder, with the right team of undersea pros, could we find and potentially recover the F-1 engines that started mankind's mission to the moon?
"I'm excited to report that, using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, the team has found the Apollo 11 engines lying 14,000 feet below the surface, and we're making plans to attempt to raise one or more of them from the ocean floor. We don't know yet what condition these engines might be in — they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years. On the other hand, they're made of tough stuff, so we'll see.
"Though they've been on the ocean floor for a long time, the engines remain the property of NASA. If we are able to recover one of these F-1 engines that started mankind on its first journey to another heavenly body, I imagine that NASA would decide to make it available to the Smithsonian for all to see. If we're able to raise more than one engine, I've asked NASA if they would consider making it available to the excellent Museum of Flight here in Seattle. (For clarity, I'll point out that no public funding will be used to attempt to raise the engines, as it's being undertaken privately.)
"NASA is one of the few institutions I know that can inspire 5-year-olds. It sure inspired me, and with this endeavor, maybe we can inspire a few more youth to invent and explore.
"We'll keep you posted."
Update for 2:15 p.m. ET March 29: In comments distributed to journalists on Wednesday, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs had some nice things to say about Bezos' project but noted that the space agency has not yet been involved in formal talks about recovery of the engines.
"We read Mr. Bezos's blog post with the same excitement as I am sure others have today," CollectSpace's Robert Pearlman quoted Jacobs as saying. "We have not had any formal contact with Mr. Bezos about the Apollo engines but we look forward to hearing more from his team and the recovery expedition."
Jacobs said "the rules regarding NASA property in the ocean are the same as those that govern sunken ships and other government property, including our hardware on the moon and other celestial bodies. ... As Mr. Bezos points out in his blog, the federal government retains ownership until the property is properly disposed."
"However, we do not see that as any impediment to the recovery efforts of the Apollo engines," Jacobs wrote.
He drew a parallel to the Liberty Bell 7 case: "Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic in 1999 through a private venture. Ownership of the spacecraft was eventually turned over to the Kansas Cosmosphere, where it remains on public display." (I originally wrote that Liberty Bell 7 was raised in 1997, but I was two years off.)
Jacobs sees Bezos' venture as a positive step for space history: "There has always been great interest in artifacts from the early days of space exploration and his announcement only adds to the enthusiasm of those interested in NASA's history," The Associated Press' Alicia Chang quoted him as saying.
Update for 10:30 p.m. ET April 1: In a statement released on Friday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden indicated that he's totally on board with Bezos' plan:
"I would like to thank Jeff Bezos for his communication with NASA informing us of his historic find. I salute him and his entire team on this bold venture and wish them all the luck in the world.
"NASA does retain ownership of any artifacts recovered and would likely offer one of the Saturn V F-1 engines to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington under longstanding arrangements with the institution as the holder of the national collection of aerospace artifacts.
"If the Smithsonian declines or if a second engine is recovered, we will work to ensure an engine or other artifacts are available for display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, as Jeff requested in his correspondence with my office. I have directed our staff to begin work to exercise all appropriate authorities to provide a smooth and expeditious disposition of any flight hardware recovered.
"I sincerely hope all continues to go well for Jeff and Blue Origin, and that his team enjoys success and prosperity in every endeavor. All of us at NASA have our fingers crossed for success in his upcoming expedition of exploration and discovery."
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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.