Cosmosphere completes conservation of recovered Apollo engines
By JOHN GREEN | The Hutchinson News, Kan. | Published: August 3, 2015
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — It is a bittersweet time for Jerrad Alexander.
For more than two years, he has been part of a local four-person crew working to conserve pieces of several stage-one Saturn V rocket engines that launched Apollo missions to the moon, recovered from deep in the ocean, where they rested more than 40 years.
With the preservation job essentially done, the F-1 Engine parts – some in small plastic sleeves within plastic boxes and others, weighing tons sitting atop fabricated steel frames – are lined in neat order across SpaceWorks’ warehouse floor on Whiteside Avenue, some awaiting shipment to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
“I’ve spent 2½ years working on this,” Alexander said. “There’s been a lot of amazing opportunity and discovery. Buzz Aldrin was here to look at it; we met some of the engineers who put man on the moon. An observation area was built to bring groups through and show them the project. For 2½ years, there was a lot of cool stuff.”
It was an experience he didn’t go looking for, or ever expected.
Alexander, who worked at the Cosmosphere in high school, joined the Air Force and was working for the Department of Defense when he visited the space museum while home on a visit. Cosmosphere President Jim Remar approached him about the unique job.
“They wanted my expertise in aerospace system technologies,” he said, “someone who could read the manuals and engineering documents.”
He is glad to see the project – which took study, patience, hours of documentation and sometimes hours of meticulous cleaning by hand – finally done. He also realizes, however, once they ship the pieces, there will be no more hands-on. Like the public, he will only be able to see them through glass.
There was one piece on Thursday receiving additional electrolysis treatment after project staff spotted some new corrosion, but for the most part, the massive pieces wait, wrapped in specially treated blue plastic sheeting.
After separating from the upper stages of the rocket just minutes after launch, the lower stage containing the five F-1 engines crashed back into the Atlantic Ocean at 5,000 miles per hour.
A deep-sea mission more than 300 miles off the Florida coast, sponsored by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, recovered parts of four engines. The SpaceWorks staff, using serial and parts numbers, positively identified the engines as coming from the Apollo 11, 12 and 16 missions.
All three – created with an intended usable lifetime of just 8 minutes – sent astronauts to the moon, with the Apollo 11 being the historic first moon landing.
Their mission, Remar said, was to conserve the pieces, not restore them.
“We felt the way the artifacts appear is part of its life and history,” he said. “We didn’t want to do anything that changed their appearance. So, unlike a restoration where you may introduce non-original materials or may reshape something to look like it originally did, our objective was to preserve the artifacts as they are.”
That included steel vanes on an injector assembly smashed flat by the engines’ impact with the ocean after falling 432 miles, and one side of an Apollo 11 thrust chamber – made of a special nickel alloy strong enough to contain the launch blast of the engines – blown out by seawater gushing through it, Alexander said.
Because they recovered the parts from 14,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, where they had lain more than 40 years, the first step of the process was stabilizing the corroding metals by continually flushing the parts with fresh water to remove absorbed salt.
“We moved from straight tap water to deionized water, and then introduced corrosion inhibitors,” Remar said. “Once they felt the chloride levels were low enough, each artifact was placed in its own treatment tank. In each tank they introduced chemicals dependent on the material composition of the artifact. That acted as a strengthener, while continuing to draw chlorides out of the material.”
The length of flushing and tank treatments varied, based on the metal involved, ranging from a few months to up to a year, Remar said.
On some pieces they used pressure washers to clean accumulated salt, sand and debris from the material, “as well as media blasting with dry ice,” Remar said. “They were using dental picks and things like that,” manually cleaning parts.
They received the rockets in multiple components. Some they dismantled further to clean and will probably leave them apart to display, while they have rejoined others.
For example, Alexander said, black soot from the firing of the engines is still visible on the surface of two turbine pieces once bolted together.
Besides Alexander, three other SpaceWorks employees who’ve been with the organization longer worked on the project. Those included: SpaceWorks Manager Dale Capps, who’s been there since 1998; Don Aich, a technician there since 2004; and Larry Goodwin, who’s on his second stint with the company.
While the SpaceWorks technicians did the majority of work, Paul Mardikian and Claudia Chemello, two conservators from Terra Mare Conservation, a maritime conservation company in Charleston, S.C., actually lead the project, Alexander said.
“They came out one week a month and left us to-do lists,” Alexander said.
They also had assistance from the National Institute of Aviation Research at Wichita State University, “as well as other technicians from around the country,” Remar said.
“Though designed in the late ‘50s and used in the ‘60s and ‘70s, this was the absolute limit of human engineering at that point,” Alexander said, noting an F-1 engine “was more powerful than all three shuttle main engines combined.”
“They began their life in aerospace but became a marine archeology project and then came back as a conservation project,” Alexander said. “These engines have had an interesting life.”
The F-1 conservation “was a lot different than any other project we’ve done prior,” Remar said. “And it was probably a lot more challenging.”
That is because the materials in the F-1 “are fairly new.”
“Even though they were fabricated in the ‘50s and ‘60s, these materials had never been conserved,” he said. “There was not a set of procedures or protocols to follow. In many ways, they wrote the procedures as they went.”
The Air and Space Museum plans to redo its existing Apollo Gallery and display the Apollo 11 engine parts there. Initial plans, Anderson said, are to display the pieces individually, but in order of how they would piece together, “in an exploded view, like you might find in a maintenance manual showing orientation, but with parts spread apart so you can see their surfaces.”
Before shipping the pieces, SpaceWorks will fabricate their display stands, which will serve for both shipping and display, Remar said, in order to “handle the artifacts as few times as possible.”
“We’ve got to make sure whatever we do properly supports and stabilizes the artifact,” he said. “Then we’ll crate them and ship them in a climate-controlled vehicle.”
They do not have a time frame yet for shipping.
“It was an honor for the Cosmosphere to be involved in such an historic project and we hope our portion of it helps to serve as an inspiration for future generations,” Remar said.
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