by Raju Peddada
Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics - Part II
"...beautiful pieces of engineering. It's a shame that the ones flown are all laying about on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean corroding away."
—Artist - Blogger
"God...those engines are so bad-ass, I am surprised the test platform didn't go into orbit."
—Cal-Tech Blogger[ed. Read Part I of this essay.]
(Swans - June 6, 2011) In the turbulent 1960s, America looked beautiful on the surface, with wide highways traversed by the middle class in their four-wheeled fishtailed boats, but a deep ugliness, like gangrene, festered in the south. America was living a contradiction, and nowhere was this more evident than in Alabama, a state that epitomized this contradiction and dysfunction. Despite the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1864, a hundred years later, Alabama, like the other southern states, was reluctant to relinquish their "plantation culture." In fact, a mere 80 years later, during WWII manufacturing, racial tensions boiled over in Mobile, Alabama, at the Alabama Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Company. Twenty years later, in the '60s, segregation persisted under acrimonious conditions, but the Civil Rights Movement had come into full ferment. It is quite astounding, and hard to digest that this kind of racist segregation and bigotry did not exist in the Roman Empire, over two thousand years ago, till it became a religious one under Constantine.
It is sardonic that Mobile was the venue where a racially segregated American workforce built warships to destroy the racist regime in Germany. The antipodean reality in the '60s was this: as the U.S. was poised to take a giant leap into the future with its space program, it was still shackled with a ball-and-chain mentality in Alabama, where once again, the government had setup Mr. Werhner Von Braun (who ironically escaped from the Nazi regime) and company, to fire up the US ascent to the moon. It was a sad paradox, that while the surrounding society wallowed in primitive behavior, the engines of progress could not be held back in Huntsville, Alabama.
"The segregated armed forces of the U.S. landed in Normandy, to fight and destroy the racist war machine of the Nazis...if this is not an epigrammatic oxymoron, I don't know what it is." - Raju Peddada
An eerie similitude subsisted between the obstinate machine and its human creators. The story of the F-1 is as intriguing as a classic tale of survival by Emile Zola. What makes this story rather fantastic is the reality. The flaws and unique quirks are the elements that shape an individual. It is ironic that the perfectionist engineers had birthed an engine in their own image, with a human persona, with belligerent and stubborn "quirks" they could not extirpate. It was as if the engine, once given life, chimerically and metaphorically, assumed the human dimension of control, and flatly refused to be corrected, like any proud entity. The struggles persisted with this big stubborn engine, till its creators coaxed out most of its dysfunction, but for one: the combustion inefficiency. Engineers were forced to adapt around it. And, with this flaw, like a personality trait intact, the F-1s managed to serve their creators faithfully, without a breakdown. The black smoke and the 800-foot-long flapping flame, trailing the engines after lift-off, seemed to collectively exclaim: "See, we could do it!"
In the first week of July 1960, the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics approved an accelerated "High Priority Program" to undertake a manned expedition to the moon within the next decade, which also had become the newly-elected president John F. Kennedy's prime objective. The F-1 engine, already in the works since 1957, became an alpha-1 priority, along with the Saturn launch vehicle design in 1960. The Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) under NASA increased the thrust requirement from 1 million pounds, which the Air Force had specified in '57, to 1.5 million pounds.
"The F-1 is the most powerful single nozzle liquid fueled rocket engine ever used in service with zero percent failure rate" - European Space Agency engineer-Blogger
What was the F-1, and what is a rocket engine? The biology of a rocket engine is actually quite simple. It is not an internal combustion engine, which in a way is more complicated; rather, it is an "external combustion engine" deceptively simple, but incredibly difficult to calibrate due to the frightening pressures on systems and hardware. Simply put, the vertiginous configuration of a rocket engine is geared only to generate enormous thrust for lift-offs. Fuel sits atop the engines in a huge tank. Massive turbo-pumps directly below inject the fuel mixture into the relatively compact combustion-thrust chamber further below, where it is ignited under great pressure, with the searing exhaust directed downward through the nozzle, generating thrust. The simplicity of the F-1 utterly belied the complexities it presented, at that scale.
The heart of the F-1 engine* was its "thrust chamber," which churned and burned the fuel and oxidizer to produce thrust. A domed chamber at the apex of the engine served as a manifold, supplying oxygen to the injectors, it also doubled up as a mount for the gimbals bearing, which transmitted the thrust to the body of the rocket for directional control. The problem of scale affected many aspects of the F-1 hardware development, particularly the inherent complexities of propulsion systems and the choice of engine propellants. This brings me to another point: perhaps the ultimate reason for Saturn's success may well be in the use of cryogenic technology, which involves the use of materials at extremely low temperatures. A gas, like oxygen, is considered to be cryogenic if it can be changed to a liquid by the removal of heat, and can be liquified at or below -240 degrees Fahrenheit. Metal fatigue under such enormous swings in temperatures presented major problems. Engineers resorted to unique alloys and steel for hardware development around the engine, with proprietary welding processes.
One issue had plagued the F-1 from the outset: Combustion Instability (CI). Duct connections and tube fittings usually were the major source of failures, as they caused leakage under vibratory conditions. The severity of the problem was dependent on the amount leaked and the location. CI occurred as a result of pressure changes within the engine, perhaps due to leaks, causing rapid oscillation of the gases in the combustion chamber. Especially damaging were the low frequency oscillations causing engines to explode.
Engineers finally had concluded that the F-1's injectors were faulty, as testing hardware was inadequate. Between Rocketdyne, MSFC, and NASA, they looked at 24 injector designs. The reason for CI getting eventually resolved was as simple as continuous experimentation. Which, in engineering circles, was a concept known as "parameter variation." A systematic approach to design, utilized by engineers, when scientific theory could not adequately and quantitatively predict the performance of a particular hardware. Technology historian, Walter Vincenti called it "experimental parameter variation."
In a brilliant engineering feat, the engineers at Rocketdyne fed the turbo pumps' exhaust into the nozzle extension below, with a large tapered manifold pipe you see wrapped around the extension outside, halfway down the height of the engine. The relatively cool turbo pump exhaust gas formed a film, which protected the nozzle extension below from a potentially destructive 5800 degrees Fahrenheit (3200 Degrees Centigrade) engine exhaust gas that formed the thrust.
Another challenge was designing a pump that could deliver enormous amount of fuel into the thrust chamber. Designing turbo pumps that could handle 40,000-plus gallons of fuel a minute was a gargantuan task. Eventually, they managed to engineer two turbine-driven pumps, which at 5500 RPM produced 55,000 brake horsepower for injecting fuel into the chambers for the five F-1s, to produce the desired total thrust of 7 million-plus pounds. The fuel pumps produced 15,471 gallons of RP-1 (kerosene), while the oxidizer pump delivered 24,811 gallons of LOX (liquid oxygen) every minute, equivalent to the contents of a regulation-size swimming pool in less than a minute. This is roughly 3 swimming pools in about 150 seconds or 2.7 tons per second, the duration of stage 1 of the flight. The pumps were designed to withstand temperatures ranging from 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Centigrade) to liquid oxygen temperature at -300 degrees Fahrenheit (-184 degrees Centigrade).
"No other operational launch vehicle has ever surpassed the Saturn V in height, weight and payload." - Boeing engineer-Blogger
Here are some surreal numbers that force us to ponder on the scale and power of these engines. The F-1 reportedly produced around 27 million brake-horsepower per engine. Each of the F-1s burned 3945 lbs (1789 Kg) of liquid oxygen and 1738 lbs (788 Kg) of refined kerosene each second, generating 1.5 million lbs of thrust. The flow rate of fuel was 671.4 gallons of oxygen-kerosene per second, almost 2.7 metric tons per second. During their 2.5 minutes of operation, the cluster of five F-1s propelled the Saturn V to a height of 42 nautical miles (68 Km) at the velocity of 6164 miles per hour, which at 12 minutes in flight, sped up to a searing 17,000 miles per hour, against the gravity and atmospheric pressure. Each F-1 produced enough thrust to propel 25 Titanics or 250-plus locomotives. These five engines at full thrust lifted a dead weight mass of over 6.69 million pounds that stood 36 stories high. Indeed, thrust was the elemental concept here.
The allegorical word "thrust" can infer many things. If you are visually creative, you can conjure up images than can make you squeamish, bashful, or even render you purple with pride. Thrust encapsulates the allusive exertions of our temporal existence. Thrust can be life and living, it also is youth and ambition. It can mean both the masculine and feminine thrust in seeding and delivering progeny. Seeds germinate and thrust both upwards and downwards to seek nutrients. Sales and marketing is nothing but thrust for your products; what we read thrusts our mind into new spheres. And why do we pay exorbitant prices for cars that take only 3.5 seconds to reach 70 mph? Thrust is an elemental concept, indispensable to life. So, it is not surprising that thrust was and still is, the only key to our orbit and beyond.
A few hundred engineers rallied to design and create this engine, and as it turns out, the engine, with its performance, managed to rally the whole world. Millions crowded their TVs around the world and the Cape Canaveral area, three miles out from the launch pad, to feel the lightning and thunder of the F-1s lifting the massive Saturn V. Many wistfully reminisce the chills of pride and the possession of the moment, in those glorious lift-offs. The roar of the F-1s was the roar of a nation, and the roar of a generation. Never had so many spirits soared on the back of a mechanical contraption, and never had an engine become the catalyst for catharsis for millions of souls!
A corroded collection of bronze and wood fragments known as "the Antikythera Mechanism" was found in the Aegean Sea, off the eponymous Greek island in 1901, from an ancient shipwreck. Archaeologists, historians and imaging technologists in the ensuing decades concluded the complex system of 30 gears to be a 2200-year-old "Astronomical Calculator" from the time of Hipparchus, who had founded the school of astronomy on the island of Rhodes in 2nd century BC. Researchers are now convinced that this mechanism was an instrument that helped predict both the lunar and the solar eclipses. It took almost 2200 years for mankind to go from an astronomical calculator to the landing on the moon. And, how ironical it would be if 2000 years from now, when humans had already colonized Mars and had found a way to live under water, if they discover all the F-1 engines corroded away on the Atlantic floor, and say the same things the Antikythera experts are saying now: "...astonishing how advanced the creativity and engineering capabilities were of these people 2000 years ago!" I think we must retrieve at least the seminal F-1s of the Apollo Missions 8, 11, and 13 for the Smithsonian. Hemingway had once said that words could never be a substitute for the real thing.
Finally, The F-1s put us on the lunar surface, and gave us a whole new perspective. For the first time, we could see, with our naked eyes, a blue-brown orb, the size of a partially visible marble, suspended in an ominous black void we call home. Up close, the earth is a foreboding religious and political cauldron, also beset with natural upheavals. Details are often discouraging and even distracting to a great extent. Only when we pull away from a painting, do we really see its unity, its majesty, and its beauty. All our differences dissolve into a unified resplendence, as the spacecraft pulls away into the cold vacuity. It is a beautiful metaphoric paradox, but real, to which we remain blind. Distance from the earth erases our security, giving us a sense of how alone, isolated, and vulnerable we really are; suspended on a translucent sphere that we could block out with our thumb from the lunar surface. Yet, we persist on amplifying and magnifying our differences, with inane ideologies, politics, and wars. The F-1 was an inadvertent gift to ourselves. A gift as a Janus-faced mirror: one side reflected our unfathomable ingenuity, our glorious vulnerability, and adaptability. The other side revealed our hubris and the self-destructive tendencies, but more than anything, it highlighted humanity's utter insignificance in the scheme of the universe.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)