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Image: Blast from the Past
Jay Reeves  /  AP
In this image taken from video, NASA engineers test-fire a key part of a rocket engine left over from the 1960s-era Apollo moon missions on Thursday in Huntsville, Ala.
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updated 1/24/2013 7:43:10 PM ET 2013-01-25T00:43:10

A rocket engine that was built to launch the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon more than 40 years ago is again rumbling across the Southern landscape.

The engine, known to NASA engineers as No. F-6049, was supposed to help propel Apollo 11 into orbit in 1969, when NASA sent Neil Armstrong and two other astronauts to the moon for the first manned landing. The flight went off without a hitch, but no thanks to the engine — it was grounded because of a glitch that cropped up during a test in Mississippi. After Apollo 11, the engine was sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it sat for years.

Now, young engineers who weren't even born when Armstrong took his one small step are using the bell-shaped motor in tests to determine if technology from Apollo's reliable Saturn V design can be improved for the next generation of U.S. missions back to the moon and beyond by the 2020s.

They're learning to work with technical systems and propellants not used since before the start of the space shuttle program, which first launched in 1981.

Nick Case, 27, and other engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on Thursday completed a series of 11 test firings of the F-6049's gas generator, a jetlike rocket that produces 30,000 pounds of thrust and was used as a starter for the engine. They are trying to see whether a second-generation version of the Apollo engine could produce even more thrust and be operated with a throttle for deep-space exploration.

There are no plans to send the old engine into space, but it could become a template for a new generation of motors incorporating parts of its design.

Apollo's fire rekindled
In NASA-speak, the old 18-foot-tall (5.5-meter-tall) motor is called an F-1 engine. During moon missions, five of them were arranged at the base of the 363-foot-tall (111-meter-tall) Saturn V system and fired together to power the rocket off the ground toward Earth orbit.

Thursday's test used one part of the engine, the gas generator, which powers the machinery to pump propellant into the main rocket chamber. It doesn't produce the massive orange flame or clouds of smoke like that of a whole F-1, but the sound was deafening as engineers fired the mechanism in an outdoor test stand on a cool, sunny afternoon.

The device produced a plume that resembled a blowtorch the size of two buses and set fire to a grassy area, which was quickly extinguished.

"It's not small," Case said. "It's pretty beefy on its own."

And just like during the Apollo days, people in north Alabama heard rockets thundering in the distance during tests at Marshall.

"My wife and daughter were in our front yard and she said they could hear it, which was pretty cool," Case said after an earlier test. "We live about 15 miles away."

A single F-1 engine can produce 1.5 million pounds of thrust using a fuel composed of liquid oxygen and refined kerosene, which was not used in the space shuttle.

Setting the stage for deep space
The tests were conducted at Marshall in a project conducted with Dynetics Inc. and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which are studying NASA's possibilities for deep-space missions years from now. The space agency plans to use commercial launches to reach low Earth orbit; larger rockets are required to escape the planet's gravity.

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R.H. Coates, an engineer who works with Case in Marshall's liquid propulsion office, said young engineers can learn a lot from the work done by predecessors using slide rules in the 1960s, but no one wants to simply rebuild the old Saturn V engine.

"This wouldn't be your daddy's F-1," Coates said. "We'd use new materials and try to simplify it, update it."

Case started at Marshall as a high school intern in 2002 and has been working there since graduating from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2008. He said today's technology allows things that weren't possible during the 1960s, but he has been impressed by what he learned taking apart the unused Apollo 11 engine.

Engine No. F-6049 didn't fit properly on the Apollo 11 rocket, but it is invaluable now as a testing tool. Coates said a total of 85 F-1 engines were used on 17 Apollo flights without a single failure.

About a dozen F-1 engines remain in Huntsville, home of NASA's main propulsion center, and others are located elsewhere. Most are on display; Case said engineers used engine No. F-6049 for the tests because it was the most complete.

"It is really an excellent booster," he said. "The guys in Apollo had it right."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: NASA tests vintage rocket engine

  1. Closed captioning of: NASA tests vintage rocket engine

    >>> the roar that could be heard for miles today around huntsville, alabama was the test firing of a vintage rocket engine that was first built to take the apollo 11 mission to the moon . nasa's firing off old ones to learn lessons for the next generation of engines. one of the engineers on the project today, 27 years old, 13 years younger than the rocket they test fired.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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