Swans Commentary » swans.com May 23, 2011  



An Engine That Lifted Our Spirits!
The F-1 Gave us a Rare Perspective of our Planet


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics - Part I



"We could have already been on Mars today, if the Apollo project hadn't been scrapped."
—Michael Griffon, NASA Administration

"This fucking machine brings it on at 40,000 kph...there is no better orgasm!"
—Indy-car engineer - Blogger

[Author's preface: The American brand culture, through the veins of the global trade, like both malignant and benign cells, had metastasized into every culture in the world, with iconic products, both tangible and intangible. There were very few who did not succumb. Far away in India, in the sixties, "made in America" held the same allure for us. One such "coruscating product" of the American technological culture, with no direct or immediate benefits for us, had sublimated our imagination. In fact, this "product," rather this "Rubiconic" endeavor, a byproduct of the boiling political and ideological tensions, was surprisingly the catharsis for our own psychological tensions. It also cued us to an empyrean metaphor on which our spirits piggy-backed and soared, temporarily escaping the earthly dysfunctions. This metaphoric marvel was the majestic Saturn V launch vehicle and its creation, something that transcended everybody's wildest cogitations. This panegyric is on that pivotal part of the Apollo program that enabled 100% safe lift-offs, the engines. The engines that burned the disparity between the impossible and the possible. The engines that could and bloody well did!]


(Swans - May 23, 2011)   Mankind's relentless quest had always been for the "big." Almost all monumental creations of mankind encapsulate the vanity of the ruling or the affluent elite, at the expense of the common man. From the Kraken, in the Greek mythology, to the colossus of Rhodes; from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the pyramids; from the medieval castles to the renaissance fortresses; and from The Empire State Building to the phallic Burj in Dubai. It is not just the elite clamoring for that bigness, but the common folks too: big muscles, boobs, buttocks, and penises, that keep the "enhancement engineers" whistling "Dick-see." It has been one huge vainglorious pursuit, subtexting an implicit representation of mankind's pathetic insecurity. However, not all big things represent vanity and ego. Some big things actually represent an answer to some problem; the problem necessitated their size, like the huge Hoover Dam for hydro electric power (although, with catastrophic effects on the local ecology), or the giant drainage tunnels under New York, or the huge dikes in the Netherlands so they don't float away.

We have always draped the bunting of "monumental" on only the architectural edifices, whether it is the Pyramid or the Petronas Towers, but never on something that required a large body of engineering minds -- never on an organic conflation of human ingenuity that addressed a collective boon for mankind, and remains an utterly understated wonder of the world. The quantum leap from Eli Whitney's cotton gin (precursor to the term "engine") patented in 1794 to this Rocketdyne engine is a "mere" 171 years. The men who created this fire-breathing machine are all pioneering minds of the day and some are already dead. The following essay is the acknowledgment for their creation, something that spurred everyone in a positive way, from India to Brazil and from Finland to Argentina. It inspired a whole generation of engineers, like Homer Hickam.

I hate to use gnomic clichés, but, it has always been in the eye of the beholder. I cannot be prejudiced against this endogenous creation, merely because it was incubated within the military-industrial complex. This creation may have been ordained by power politics, but special individuals from ordinary circumstances, with dreams and imagination, made it happen. I am a "neo-Bohemian," someone who not only appreciates the narcissistic yet organic individual arts, but also loves collective creations that transcend their functional obligations and become art in their own right. Ask anyone who has a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) bi-plane or an Aston Martin DB5-1964 or the 37 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, and how about the paradigmatic iPad. Why do I keep my model Bell X-1 plane, signed by Chuck Yeager, next to my Renoir print? One is the product of ferocious ambition to defeat the speed of sound, while the other is the creation of the 19th century indolence and decadence. So, what is the connection? I call it "consubstantial aesthetics!" Please pardon my seemingly mordant reticence, but my benevolent editors will not take kindly to another of my epistemological detours into the exciting world of Immanuel Kant and his "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment." I cannot spend my words explaining aesthetics.

"...few hundred aerospace engineers built the F-1 in the 50s using pencils, protractors and slide-rules...today, few thousand engineers at ATK, Aerojet and PWR with solid-works and CFD cannot... the regression is pathetic..."
—Physicist - Blogger

In the twentieth century technologies, the paradoxical wreath, monumental, can be bestowed on "nano monuments" and their engineers. Nanotechnology is engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. Nanotechnology's theoretical capability was envisioned in 1959 by the great physicist Richard Feynman. It meant building things from the bottom up, with atomic precision. Decades dissolved, but in the eighties, K. Eric Drexler dusted off the cobwebs from nanotechnology and promoted building machines on the scale of molecules.

In an amusing dichotomy, "monumental" actually is an appropriate label for these infinitesimal engineering marvels, like the tiny molecular robots that can traverse your blood vessels and obliterate blockages and life threatening clots. Infinitesimal is indeed monumental today. But, before we toss laurel wreaths at the people who are still working on these tiny marvels that may yet be applicable in the real world, let us traverse back into history and put one giant garland on the people and their creation, a result of an astoundingly synergistic gung-ho engineering feat. This creation was an inordinately powerful engineering solution for delivering mankind to earth's orbit and propelling them to another celestial body. This engineering marvel, relatively small at two stories high, is the venerable F-1 rocket engine, by the Rocketdyne engineers. Truly, a gigantic flamethrower. An understated and an underestimated modern wonder for almost two generations.

"99.99% of the engines get us from point A to B, but this one, got us from point E to point M!"
—Systems engineer at JPL - Blogger

All engines in this scale are products of the politics of national power. This one is no different, except that this engine became the nation's promise to a dead and visionary president's goal. The F-1 rocket engine is an authentic testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. It is a staggering achievement, no matter which perspective we choose, and especially mind numbing, with the engineers design-drafting this monster with pencils, slide-rules and protractors. My criterion for selecting for the F-1 is rather simple. It is a product of arduous teamwork. Hundreds of faceless engineers, like early design engineer Paul Coffman, Joe Strangeland of the turbo machinery, and Bill Wood as space and propulsion engineer, contributed under the leadership of few brilliant men like Werhner Von Braun, on every aspect of the machine, to achieve a common goal. Engineers in structure, combustion, hydraulics, electrical, chemical, vibration-combustion instability, propulsion, communications, wiring, mechanical, injection, fuel pump, and myriad other callings, came together, with an unfathomable synchronicity, synergy, and energy. It is a monument that honors human will, imagination, and ultimately the spirit of competition. And indeed my spirits soared, as a twelve-year-old in India, along with those of many others across the world in the mid to late '60s. This story for me began in the summer of '68, but the engine's germinal was much earlier, and it is as interesting as a great work of fiction, if not better.

Three things took place almost simultaneously in 1958, a crucial year for the aerospace developments. 1. The U.S. Air Force was vying for funds to pursue a bold concept: pushing the technological envelope of rocket propulsion in order to put massive payloads into earth orbit. The central issue was the lack of "thrust" with the current crop of engines: the B-2, the J-2, and the E-1 that powered various rocket missiles, including the ICBMs. The Air Force had contracted Rocketdyne in 1957, an experienced manufacturer of rocket engines, to develop the preliminary design of a single-chamber (nozzle) rocket power plant, burning RP-1 (refined kerosene) and LOX (oxygen) able to deliver 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Rocketdyne named the engine F-1, sequentially after the E-1.

"I believe, the closest humans have ever come to imitating nature's fury, is in their creation of the mighty F-1, with unbelievable power at their fingertip." —Florida woman with a gifted autistic son - Blogger

2. In the meantime, the same year, Dr. Werhner Von Braun presented a visionary report to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics's (NACA) special board on space technology: "A Nationally Integrated Missile and Space Vehicle Development Program." The proposal outlined a "space launch program" spanning more than two decades with an array of launch vehicles that included Star-Wars type interplanetary probes, flights to the moon, and missions to Mars and even Venus. The proposal also included a recommendation for a single-chamber rocket engine capable of over one million pounds of thrust. Curiously, this recommendation was eliminated. The estimated cost was $30 billion. That is right, $30 billion! Two months' worth of expense that we now blow on our wars in the Middle East! Anyway, many who saw the proposals then were aghast at the numbers, including Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, head of NACA, who actually distanced himself and the NACA from this seemingly absurd proposal. Einstein had one said that if an idea is not absurd at first presentation, it has no chance.

3. The third event that sealed the deal positively for our aerospace efforts was the signing of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into existence by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in July of the same year. NASA was activated on October 1, 1958. What is redeeming about this whole creation was the turning over of the U.S. Air Force program to create a rocket engine to power heavier ICBM payload to a civilian authority for an entirely different purpose: space exploration and the expansion of humanity beyond the bounds of the earth, which decades later, actually turned into a global cooperation, especially between the two ideological adversaries, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

In 1959, the Department of Defense continued transferring the Saturn program along with the associated engineering and support personnel to NASA. On March 15, 1960, President Eisenhower signed an executive order formally renaming the power plant test facilities in Huntsville, Alabama, as the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), which began operations on July 1 with Dr. Von Braun as its director -- the place where they eventually tested the mighty F-1s in 1965. I could not understand why they chose Alabama for this endeavor, but it was a contentious place, to say the least, and we will explore this later, in part two.

All through the late '50s, the key players on the rocket engine development and application, confabulated and oscillated in arguments, discussions, and counter-proposals. Byzantine wrangling and politics ensued, as they looked at the practicality and almost aborted the F-1. The first one that eliminated the recommendation altogether from Von Braun's proposal was a man with a "conservative disposition," Dr. Hugh Dryden, the head of NACA. Then, there was a trio of engineers, Richard Canright, David Young, and Richard Cesaro, who subscribed to the "use what we have" philosophy, which was not warped, but, it meant a dense, sure to fail, clustering of engines for the first "lift-off" stage. Von Braun and Major General John B. Medaris preferred a cluster of four E-1 engines. Medaris had reservations on many engines working reliably, but was eventually convinced. Interestingly, almost unbeknownst to the gentlemen above, and while these wranglings over the engine continued with ferocity, the Air Force had already ordained the birth of the F-1, with Rocketdyne as its maker.

From the beginning, the issue had been "thrust." There was no single engine with "substantial" thrust available, and for that matter, even a cluster of engines with enough thrust to lift heavy payloads into space, clustering engines was an imperative, but clustering of anything more than five engines was asking for trouble on the base of the 33-foot-diameter Saturn V. This meant that the B-2s and the J-2s were not enough. E-1s were considered, but again, did not have enough thrust. The only way to put astronauts with equipment into the orbit, achieve that soft landing on the moon, and accomplish other objectives was with a cluster of engines producing 1.5 million pounds of thrust each. There were detractors to clustering, but clustering of engines makes it possible for safety and reliability that actually had led the universal and ubiquitous adaptation of multi-engine format for the passenger jets, which, unequivocally, has been the safest mode of transport.

In part Two of this article I will pursue and explore the "state" of contradictions and paradoxes: Alabama; the gritty deliberations on a seemingly recondite issue of scaling up an existing engine, which re-engineered, still had a lot of "bugs," and continued to be imperfect with a nagging combustion problem that threatened to kill the program; then, the pivotal issue of thrust and how indispensable it became to sustain that power for safe lift-offs. Engine thrust and combustion dominated all other issues, right till the end. Finally, I will also ruminate on the philosophical impact and the change in our perspective, followed by attitude, this machine had wrought in viewing our own planet. And how indeed, this creation is an unequivocal wonder, which can only be described in superlatives.

[ed. Continue to Part II of this essay.]


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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)


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Published May 23, 2011