Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was just five years old when he watched astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cavort on the surface of the moon.
The footprints they left on the lunar surface in July 1969 also made a lasting imprint on him. And thanks to his rescue of two rockets that sank miles into the Atlantic Ocean, his name will be forever linked to that momentous Apollo 11 mission. As he recounted later in Space magazine, he was sitting in his living room one day, worrying about the effects of salt water on metal for the booster rockets ejected from Apollo 11. The rockets wouldn’t last forever down there.
“We should go get them and put them in a museum,” Bezos concluded.
He thought the job would be easy. And it started out that way. He’d poked around the internet and found the radar-tracked coordinates–the X-marks-the-spot identifying where the booster stage of Apollo 11 slipped out of the atmosphere and into the Atlantic Ocean.
And so he put his money where his mouth was. Bezos quietly backed a 2013 salvage effort, which, during three weeks at sea, used deep-sea sonar to locate what he hoped were the 12-by-18 foot F-1 engines. The force of impact had mangled the metal structures, which then plunged nearly three miles below the surface to even more damage.
Finding and recovering the engines was one thing. Tying them to Apollo 11 turned out to be another. Twelve other Saturn V rockets had flown between 1967 and 1973. Could the mangled mess be from one of these?
That was a secret the ocean didn’t give up easily, Bezos confessed, describing the recovery effort on his website. “The components’ fiery end and heavy corrosion from 43 years underwater removed or covered up most of the original serial numbers,” he noted.
He sent the metal hulks off to the Great Plains, to the conservation team at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson.
Along with cleaning each part and stabilizing the damage done by the ocean, the team inspected and documented the parts. A breakthrough came with the use of a black light and a special filter, which revealed “2044” stenciled in black paint on one of the pieces. It was a serial number associated with Engine 5 of the Apollo 11 rocket. The removal of corrosion also revealed “Unit No. 2044” stamped in the engine’s metal surface.
“Huge kudos to the conservation team,” a delighted Bezos said on his website. “Conservation is painstaking work that requires remarkable levels of patience and attention to detail, and these guys have both.” Since then, Bezos sent out more expeditions and, remarkably, has pulled up engine parts from Apollo 12, Apollo 16, and what he is confident is Apollo 13, missions.
Bezos has footed the bill for the salvage and conservation, although the parts still belong to NASA. In 2017, parts of those recovered rockets were installed next an unused rocket for comparison, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. The museum is near Bezo’s Amazon headquarters and the offices of Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company founded by him. Other exhibits are planned for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Bezos makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the half-century-old rockets ancient relics.
“The F-1 rocket engine is still a modern wonder—one and a half million pounds of thrust, 32 million horsepower, and burning 6,000 pounds of rocket grade kerosene and liquid oxygen every second,” he wrote on his web page. “On July 16, 1969, the world watched as five particular F-1 engines fired in concert, beginning the historic Apollo 11 mission. Those five F-1s burned for just a few minutes, and then plunged back to Earth into the Atlantic Ocean, just as NASA planned. A few days later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.”
That “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” led to a huge jump for young Jeff Bezos and his own future. He credits the moonwalk to his interest in science, math and engineering–and to his eventual development of Amazon.
Terri Likens‘ byline has appeared in newspapers around the world through the Associated Press. She has also done work for ABCNews, the BBC, and magazines that include High Country News, American Profile and Plateau Journal. She lives just east of Nashville, Tenn.