Apollo 11 was a critical step forward for the nascent manned space flight program in America, a repurposing of nuclear weapons technology and a show of geopolitical dominance, a program rooted in the ineffable “right stuff” of the seemingly fearless naval test pilots who served as guinea pigs for the first flights into space.
In years to come, the first women and people of color to become NASA astronauts would be launched into space, the idea of private commercial space travel would become increasingly real, and one more step in the journey of Apollo 11 would be taken, again from the Pacific Northwest.
Blue Origin, one of a small number of private space-travel efforts, is the work of Amazon CEO and Seattle-area resident Jeff Bezos. Along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Blue Origin received no shortage of publicity since its founding in 2001. What has received less publicity is Bezos’ involvement with the artifacts left behind by Apollo 11, and the powerful Saturn V rockets that launched Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and the astronauts who followed them into space.
Like Dr. James Joki’s backpacks and part of the lunar module, all abandoned on the moon during the journey of Apollo 11, the F-1 rocket engines that launched the spacecraft for NASA’s Apollo program were also dropped en route. They crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, where they fell 14,000 feet below the surface. They’d stay there for over 40 years.
But in 2010, Bezos, who has recounted watching the moon landing with wonder as a boy, quietly funded a recovery mission, and two expeditions led by David Concannon, a deep-water search and recovery expert, whose teams included a number of Seattleites. With limited geographic information provided by NASA about where the pieces might have ended up, the groups set to work, and ultimately retrieved several elements related to the F-1 rocket engines used at launch for Apollo 11, 12 and 16. The haul included the center F-1 engine from Apollo 11.
“Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible,” wrote Bezos in an update posted to his Bezos Expeditions website at the time.
After the pieces were pulled from the Atlantic, they were taken to Kansas City for conservation, says Ted Huetter, senior public relations manager at the Museum of Flight. The intention was not to wholly restore the pieces, but to stop corrosion that had set in during their time underwater.
The remains of all three F-1s are now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, and include an injector plate from Apollo 12, where, Huetter explains, the final combustion for liftoff would have entered the engine.