To the Moon: Rocketdyne, Keeper of the Flame

To the Moon: Rocketdyne, Keeper of the Flame

Summary: Our third installment in our series is about Rocketdyne, the company which built and designed the mighty rocket engines for the Saturn V.


Our third installment in our series is about Rocketdyne, the company which built and designed the mighty rocket engines for the Saturn V.

This article was originally published in July of 2009.

F-1 Rocket Engine Undergoing Testing

The Rocketdyne F-1 rocket engine, producing 1.5 million pounds of takeoff thrust and fueled with Liquid Kerosene (RP-1) and Liquid Oxygen was the core component of the S-IC boost stage that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. The photo above is the engine undergoing testing at Edwards Air Force Base. (Photo Courtesy Rocketdyne)

Early In 1960, the Apollo program was conceived by the Eisenhower administration as a direct sequel to the Mercury program, the United States's first manned space program. Much of the US's backing of the manned space program was rhetoric, until Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard his Vostok 1 spacecraft made history with the world's first orbital manned flight in April of 1961.

Once the Soviet Union had set the bar, it was seen by the current administration -- John F. Kennedy's -- as a provocation to raise the bar higher in what was clearly an escalating space race. The need to advance our space technology was not only out of a need to be superior to the Soviets from a technological perspective, but it was a political motivator to drive American industry to drive technological progress. So on May 25 of 1961, at a special joint session of Congress, President Kennedy delivered his historic statement:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Considering that the United States had only just sent its first Mercury astronaut, Alan Shepherd, into a 15-minute sub-orbital flight only two weeks earlier, this was a very tall order.

The technology that would be needed (not to mention the money required to pull this off) would be unprecedented in terms of what had been achieved in the history of mankind.

Getting one man into orbit with Project Mercury was one thing, or even two in the case of Gemini, but the rocket propulsion that would be required to get several men to the moon and back safely would need to be many of orders of magnitude more powerful than anything that had existed previously.

The company that was on the forefront of American rocket engine design was Rocketdyne, at the time a subsidiary of North American Aviation. In 1955, Rocketdyne was a company that employed about 2,500 people and was involved in cruise missile research for the United States military, producing a rocket engine for the SM-64 Navaho.

The rocket engine for the Navaho used a liquid kerosene propellant (RP-1) with liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer. The Navaho was cancelled in 1957, after several failed launches.

The canceling of the Navaho contract would have seemed to have spelled the end for kerosene-fueled rockets and Rocketdyne's continued research, if it wasn't for the fact that the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit, which meant that theoretically, the communists could also drop a nuclear warhead on anywhere in the United States whenever they wanted to.

This accelerated the development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles such as the Atlas (which was also the launch platform for Project Mercury) and Intermediate and Medium Range Ballistic Missiles such as the the Thor and Jupiter, all of which Rocketdyne designed the propulsion systems for.

The Mighty F-1

Wernher von Braun dwarfed by the F-1 engines of the Saturn V S-IC.

Wernher Von Braun dwarfed by the F-1 engines of the Saturn V S-IC.

To send men to the moon, a much larger rocket engine was going to be needed. In 1960, the Marshall Space Flight Center, led by NASA's chief rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, determined via early calculations that they would need to design a multi-stage rocket with over 7 million pounds of thrust in its boost stage -- this was many orders of magnitude above what was currently available.

It eventually fell upon Rocketdyne to design a RP-1/LOX engine, eventually designated the F-1,  which would have 1.5 million pounds of takeoff thrust apiece. Five F-1s would be used on the S-IC first stage on the Saturn V, which would have a combined thrust of 7.5 million pounds.

NASA had just under 10 years in order to satisfy Kennedy's edict to get men on the Moon. Fortunately, Rocketdyne had already done a lot of the groundwork and gained a lot of experience with Atlas, Jupiter and Thor, and had begun early development of a prototype high-thrust rocket engine for the Air Force even before NASA asked for engines with the specifications for the Saturn V boost stage.

Rockedyne was testing early prototypes of the precursor to the F-1 as early as 1959. The problem now was scaling up those engines and designing turbopumps that could handle the 40,000+ gallons per minute each giant F-1 engine would consume.

Needless to say the effort that went into designing and testing the F-1 engines were enormous. Turbo machinery and pressure vessels would frequently explode under the incredible forces and speeds they had to operate under and many design changes had to occur before the engine could even be flight tested.

From 1957 to 1961, Rocketdyne grew from a company of 2,500 people to well over 20,000 employees, and had tremendous resources and many test facilities at their disposal. By 1961 functional F-1 engines were being tested at Edwards Air Force base on huge, oil-derrick sized platforms made to withstand over 2 million pounds of rocket thrust. The first F-1 engines flew on Apollo 4, in November of 1967.

The Versatile J-2

Rocketdyne technicians assembling J2 engines, c.1964 (Photo courtesy Rocketdyne)

Rocketdyne technicians assembling J-2 engines, c.1964 (Photo courtesy Rocketdyne)

Still, even the F-1 engine alone was not enough to send men to the Moon. While kerosene/LOX rocket engine technology was very powerful, it was also a trade off. To use the F-1 or other kerosene/LOX engines on the upper stages of the Saturn V would have meant that the rocket would have needed to be much, much heavier and much larger because of the specific impulse characteristics of RP-1 liquid rocket fuel.

Instead, a completely different rocket engine technology would need to be developed that could burn a fuel with a much higher specific impulse -- Liquid Hydrogen/LOX engines. Additionally, the upper stage rocket engine on the S-IVB that would send the Apollo spacecraft into Trans Lunar Injection had to be re-startable, which the F-1 was not.

The J-2 project was run in parallel with the F-1 project, and in many respects the Rocketdyne engineers working on it had much more difficult challenges to overcome than with F-1 because LOX/Hydrogen rockets were completely new technology and required development of advanced cryogenic refrigeration and coolant technology for the liquid hydrogen fuel.

Each J-2 was rated at over 200,000 lbs of thrust. Five were used on the S-II stage and a single J-2, which was restartable, was used on the S-IVB that carried the Command Module/Service Module to the Moon. The first J-2 made its first orbital flight on February 26, 1966 aboard a Saturn IB rocket, as part of a full test of the S-IVB stage in space.

Paul Coffman (Left) joined Rocketdyne in 1955 and worked on early engineering of the F-1 as well as component and engine testing on the J-2. Joe Stangeland (Right) joined Rocketdyne in 1957 and worked on the turbomachinery in the F-1 and the J-2 for the Saturn V. Click to listen to a podcast with ZDNet's Jason Perlow and Rocketdyne engineers Paul Coffman and Joe Stangeland

Rocketdyne's Future In Space

Rocketdyne, now part of United Technogies' Pratt and Whitney aerospace division, still continues to be a key player in the rocket propulsion industry. After Apollo, Rocketdyne was awarded the contract to build the RS-24 Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), which are LOX/Hydrogen rocket engines that are designed to be re-usable and deliver 400,000 Lbs of thrust each.

Rocketdyne also produces the RS-68, a 600,000+ Lb thrust LOX/Hydrogen engine used on the Delta IV heavy-lift launch vehicle for use in military applications.

40 years after Apollo 11, Rocketdyne has dusted off the basic J-2 design and given it a complete engineering makeover as the J-2X, with a thrust capability approaching 300,000 lbs, and will be far less expensive to produce than the SSME.

In June of 2006, Rocketdyne was awarded the rocket engine contract on the Ares I, also known as "The Stick", which which combines  a Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) from Thiokol as the first stage and a Rocketdyne J-2X on the Earth Departure Stage for the Orion spacecraft -- the modern equivalent of the S-IVB on the Saturn V.

But what about the future of Moon rockets? The design characteristics of the Ares V system as part of the Constellation program are not set in stone -- the Augustine commission, the special committee set up by President Obama to review the future of American human space flight, has not yet released its findings as to what the Moon rocket of the future will look like.

However, it's probably a safe bet that Rocketdyne's RS-68 and J-2X engines will likely play a role in their design, whatever the final configuration may be.

Were you an employee of Rocketdyne during the Apollo or Shuttle eras? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Innovation, CXO, Nasa / Space, IT Employment


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Indeed amazing technological feats, but

    can we also get a write-up of the phase that *didn't* happen, i.e. the actual landing on the moon?
    • Yeah, ok

      It would have been more expensive to fake and cover up than actually land people on the moon. There's so much supporting documenting evidence we did it it's not even funny.
  • What's sad Jason is that we spent the next ...

    ... forty years in low earth orbit instead of taking the next great leap. By now, we could have had a permament self-sustaining moonbase - or at least a meaningful space station and spacecraft production facility in high earth orbit!

    We should have marked this fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 with the launch of a manned spacecraft to Mars - or perhaps to one of the icy moons of Jupiter.
    M Wagner
    • When historians write about the last 30 years...

      ...they will shake their heads at the resources
      spent on the shuttle at the expense of other
      programs. (The ISS was basically a make-work
      program to justify the shuttle) At around $1-
      billion per launch, it would have made more
      sense to just keep sending up Saturn IB and V
      boosters. It would have been cheaper, and they
      could get payloads beyond the 400 miles that the
      shuttle must struggle to get to.

      At this point in history, we should have at
      least had continuously operating probes on
      nearly every solid planet.
      • Saturn V not necessarily cheaper

        A big dumb booster may be cheaper than a Shuttle but not necessarily in the Saturn V configuration. The future is clearly in the combination of SRB and LOX/Hydrogen technologies in terms of higher specific impulse than LOX/RP-1. The rockets can be of much simpler designs, are more reliable and of higher performance than the Saturn V. The biggest problem is that we cannot staff the Space Program or fund it at the same rates as Apollo, we have to make do with a lot less people and a lot less money if we are to build the Ares 1 and Ares V.

        The development of LOX/Hydrogen engines with the SSME and the RS-68 that followed the J-2 were important steps to take, even if the Shuttle itself proved to be too complex a vehicle overall and too expensive for the money spent. The re-use of the Shuttle technology in Constellation will end up making it a wash, probably.
        • I think you missed the point

          My point is that the Shuttle program was so much
          more expensive/pound launched and so limited in
          performance, that we would have been better off
          using the simpler, R&D paid-for, and extremely
          reliable Apollo-like hardware than the
          boondoggle that become the Shuttle program.

          Thankfully, technology has advanced in the last
          40 years, and NASA has finally figured out
          (either through delayed enlightenment or fiscal
          necessity) that simpler is better.
    • I agree absolutely.

      Truthfully, had kept up the manned space program at Apollo program levels, we would have safely landed on Mars by 1990, or so using a nuclear ion rocket.

      Using 1/3 g acceleration cuts the trip time roughly by two thirds as opposed to simply "gliding" there. Less time exposed to space solves a lot of issues they're solving now. BTW, our magnetosphere is fully able to shield us from the nuclear radiation generated by an ion rocket as it shields us from solar radiation that is thousands of times greater than any rocket could generate. We've also proved we can build things in space, so a large ion rocket is feasible as a source of long term thrust.

      I'm digressing, but my point is we had, or were developing the technology at the time to land a human on Mars. All that effort moth-balled was just a waste of the efforts thousands of exceptionally talented people.
      • Totally unrealistic

        If we had funded the space program at Apollo program levels up through the current day we would surely be in an even worse financial situation than we are now, probably even earlier. The Apollo program funding was approximately 3 percent of the GDP of the United States.
        • And your point?

          Even given that an investment at 3% of GDP would be lavish, what other spinoffs would happen out of the research and development that number indicats. I think we would be much farther ahead of where we are now in uncountable areas of development. Probably even in as mundane areas as the current research in algea as biofuel sources.

          Hmm - algae + sunlight + CO2 + food = oxygen for breathing, water purification, possibly a food source for astronauts, and who knows what else after the technology is mature? It would be mature now if it had been pursued in support of an extended Lunar or Mars mission in the last 40 years.
  • RE: To the Moon: Rocketdyne, Keeper of the Flame

    Funny how they measured those engines in pounds of thrust!
    How much is a lunar pound worth?
    • Approximately...

      Lunar gravity is approximately 1/6th of earths, so an earth pound on the moon is a little under 2.7 ounces. However, a lunar pound is still a pound. A pound is a pound. To get a pound, you set your scales on the moon and pile things on until you hit 16 ounces. It'll just take more things.
      Dr. John
    • Pound

      There are pounds-mass and pounds-force. The reference here is no doubt pounds-mass.
      • Millions of pounds of force, only 5 inches per gallon

        The F-1 engine thrust was 1,500,000 pounds of force (6.67 MN) at the sea level and increased with altitude in thinner air. The engine mass was 18,416 pounds (8,353 kg).

        Its thrust to weight ratio was 80:1. In comparison a modern aircraft thrust to weight ratio is around 6:1 and Space-X Merlin engine is 150:1

        Even with the 5x combined thrust of 7.5 million pounds of force, the initial Saturn-V acceleration was only 1.25 g, including 1 g of Earth gravity itself. In other words, out of the five engines, four worked against gravity, supporting the enormous weight of the rocket, while the fifth engine was accelerating the rocket at 0.5 m/s2.

        Acceleration increased to 4 g in 135 seconds as the fuel burned at a rate of 13 metric tonnes per second. Out of the initial weight of 6,600,000 pounds, the first stage weighted 5,000,000 pounds with 4,712,000 pounds of fuel in it. All of it was gone in 165 seconds. Its fuel efficiency was nearly 5 inches per gallon.

        Source: Wikipedia.
  • There was a rocket testing place in northern NJ.

    In the early 60's we could feel the roar of test engines near Boonton, NJ. Anyone recall who that was and what they were testing?
  • Please tell me you're kidding. (nt)

  • We have to be missing something.

    V Rockets and the latest Moon rockets have entirely too much in common. Sure there is a lot of development effort that went into refining the designs, but that's all it is - refining an old idea. Where is the new technolgy?
    • Basic Chemical Rocket Designs

      For the most part, should not have to change. What needs to change is the manufacturing and development cost of launch systems.

      More advanced propulsion systems such as Nuclear Ion an VASIMIR are under development for longer range missions (Mars). But for orbital/translunar launch you still need liquid and solid fuel rocket propulsion. At least until a better solution can be proven.
  • Anyone can give basic graph on

    Cost of KG put to the XXXX KM above see level.

    That is basic metric of development for space "anything".

    We can dream about anything really, but unless it have solid economical basis its just a dreams. (Or political ambitions as Moon Landing was, Or military goals as Mercury was)

    Mars? Shipyards in Space? Unmanned probes around other planets?

    How somebody can earn on them?

    As long as answer is R&D & manufacturing of parts for the project, we will still be in "dreaming" era of space "anything".
    • Small improvement


      As long as ONLY answer is R&D & manufacturing of parts for the project, we will still be in "dreaming" era of space "anything".