Salvagers backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos have recovered components from the Saturn 5 rocket engines that powered NASA's Apollo moon missions off the launch pad, more than four decades after they hurtled down to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Amazon.com's founder reported on the successful three-week sea salvage operation on his Bezos Expeditions website. "What an incredible adventure," he wrote.
"We've seen an underwater wonderland — an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program," Bezos said Wednesday.
Almost a year ago, Bezos announced that deep-sea sonar scans had located the first-stage engines that were used for the historic Apollo 11 launch in 1969 — the launch that sent astronauts on their way to the moon's surface for the first time. The first stage of the three-stage Saturn 5 was jettisoned once its fuel was spent, and fell into the Atlantic.
It took months to plan the recovery expedition — and three weeks ago, Bezos and the salvage team headed out into the Atlantic on the Seabed Worker, a ship that has previously played a role in recovering sunken treasures.
"While I spent a reasonable chunk of time in my cabin emailing and working, it didn't keep me from getting to know the team," Bezos wrote. Much of his posting was given over to thank-yous for the team members.
The chilly ocean waters preserved the hardware in "gorgeous" condition at a depth of more than 14,000 feet, Bezos said. He noted that it was difficult to make out the serial numbers on the hardware. Confirmation of the Apollo 11 connection will have to wait until the parts are more closely examined.
Remotely operated vehicles recovered enough components to fashion displays of two flown F-1 engines. Bezos said the ship was now on its way back to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to offload the artifacts. Bezos Expeditions said the restoration would take place at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
"The upcoming restoration will stabilize the hardware and prevent further corrosion," Bezos said. "We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface. We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing."
Even before the expedition, Bezos and NASA worked out where the artifacts would be going. The first option would go to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told NBC News in an email. The second engine would be offered to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the hometown for Bezos and Amazon.com.
"While we have no role in the restoration, we are providing assistance to help identify the hardware through our various history offices and field centers," Jacobs said.
Although Bezos made his billions in the dot-com world, he's had a longstanding interest in spaceflight as well: His rocket venture, Blue Origin, has been working on a launch system for suborbital as well as orbital passenger flights with NASA's backing. Last year, Bezos donated a 5-ton Blue Origin lander prototype to the Museum of Flight.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised the recovery of the engines as a "historic find."
"We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display," Bolden said. "Jeff and his colleagues at Blue Origin are helping to usher in a new commercial era of space exploration, and we are confident that our continued collaboration will soon result in private human access to space, creating jobs and driving America’s leadership in innovation and exploration."
More space history:
- Timeline: NASA's Glory Days
- NASA tests engine from Apollo 11 rocket
- Moon looms again as future destination
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.