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The engines that launched Apollo 11, as seen here by a camera on the pad, have been found four decades later. (Spacecraft Films)
March 28, 2012

— When NASA's mighty Saturn V rocket launched the historic Apollo 11 mission to land the first men on the moon in 1969, the five colossal engines that powered the booster's first stage dropped into the Atlantic Ocean, sank, and were lost forever.

Lost, that is, until now.

A private expedition financed by founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos has discovered the five F-1 rocket engines that were used to launch Apollo 11 into space on July 16, 1969. The same team is now drawing up plans to retrieve one or more of the engines so they can be publicly displayed.

"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," Bezos announced on his Expeditions website. "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 are made of tough stuff, so we'll see."

The Apollo 11 mission began on July 16, 1969 with the liftoff of a Saturn V from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A in Fla. (NASA)

NASA's Saturn V remains today, more than 40 years later, the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. It used a cluster of five 12.2-foot (3.7-meter) wide F-1 engines as its foundation, with each 18.5-foot (5.6-m) tall engine capable of generating 1.5 million pounds of thrust — that's about 32 million horsepower — as it burned about 6,000 pounds of rocket fuel every second.

Lost but not forgotten

Bezos said he was only 5 years old when he watched with rapt attention when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made their voyage to the moon. But it was only recently that a question struck his mind.

"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?" Bezos wrote.

View showing Apollo 11's five F-1 engines (with bell covers still attached) inside NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building. (NASA)

It was then that he began planning what his website billed as the F-1 Engine Recovery expedition.

If one of the Apollo 11 F-1 engines is ultimately recovered, it will be turned over to NASA, Bezos added.

"Though they have 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 [the engine] available to the Smithsonian for all to see.," Bezos wrote. "If we're able to raise more than one engine, I have asked NASA if they'd consider making it available to the excellent Museum of Flight here in Seattle."

Private space history expedition

Bezos stressed that at no point will taxpayers' funds be used for the F-1 engine recovery project. The entire effort is a privately-financed expedition, he wrote.

"NASA is one of the few institutions I know that can inspire five-year-olds," Bezos added. "It sure inspired me, and with this endeavor, maybe we can inspire a few more youth to invent and explore."

The Apollo 11 F-1 project is not Bezos' only space-themed project. His commercial spaceflight company Blue Origin is developing a spacecraft capable of flying people to and from Earth orbit. That project has received some NASA funding to push its launch plan forward.

A complete F-1 engine assembly as pictured in 1968. (NASA)

Only three Saturn V rockets remain today, and only one is assembled entirely from flight-capable hardware. The 363 foot (110.6-m) tall boosters on display at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Fla. and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. are comprised of flight, test and replica components. The Saturn V at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas is built in its entirety from leftover flight hardware.

Additional standalone F-1 engines, which never flew, are displayed across the nation, including in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. In total, NASA launched 65 F-1 engines, five per flight, on 13 Saturn V boosters between 1967 and 1973.

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Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch

Video credit: Spacecraft Films