Kerosene Rocket Fuel
A 19th century petroleum product made America’s 1969 moon landing possible. On July 16, 1969, kerosene rocket fuel powered the first stage of the Saturn V of the Apollo 11 mission.
Four days after the Saturn V launched Apollo 11, astronaut Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” His historic achievement rested on new technologies – and tons of fuel first refined for lamps by a Canadian in 1848.
During launch, five Rocketdyne F-1 engines of the massive Saturn V’s first stage burn “Rocket Grade Kerosene Propellant” at 2,230 gallons per second – generating almost eight million pounds of thrust.
Saturn’s rocket fuel is highly refined kerosene RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or Refined Petroleum-1) which, while conforming to stringent performance specifications, is essentially the same “coal oil” invented in the mid-19th century.
Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner began refining an illuminating fuel from coal in 1846.
“I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene,” he noted in his patent.
By 1850 Gesner had formed a company that installed lighting in the streets in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1854 he established the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company at Long Island, New York.
Although he had coined the term kerosene from the Greek word keros (wax), because his fluid was extracted from coal, U.S. consumers called it “coal oil” as often as they called it kerosene.
By the time of the first commercial U.S. oil well drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859, a Yale scientist (hired by the well’s investors) has reported oil to be an ideal source for making kerosene, far better than refined coal. Demand for kerosene refined from petroleum launched the nation’s exploration and production industry.
Although electricity will replace kerosene lamps and gasoline dominate 20th century demand for a transportation fuel, kerosene’s ease of storage and stable properties attract rocket scientists. Decades of rocket engine research and testing lead to the Saturn V’s five Rocketdyne F-1 engines.
“The F-1 remains the most powerful single-combustion chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed, according to David Woods, author of How Apollo Flew to the Moon, 2008. The Rocketdyne F-1 engines, 19 feet tall with nozzles about 12 feet wide, include fuel pumps delivering 15,471 gallons of RP-1 per minute to their thrust chambers.
The Saturn V’s upper stages burned highly volatile liquid hydrogen (liquid oxygen was used in all three stages). The five-engine main booster held 203,400 gallon of RP-1. After firing, the engines emptied the giant fuel tank in 165 seconds.
The Apollo 11 landing crowned liquid-rocket fuel research in America dating back to Robert H. Goddard and his 1914 “Rocket Apparatus” powered by gasoline. In March 1926, Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket from his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. His rocket was powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline.
Although gasoline will be replaced with other propellants, including the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen used in the space shuttle’s external tank, RP-1 kerosene continues to fuel spaceflight.
Cheaper, easily stored at room temperature, and far less of an explosive hazard, the 19th century petroleum product today fuels first-stage boosters for the Atlas, Delta II, Antares and latest SpaceX rockets.
Last launched in 1972, the Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever built.
Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © AOGHS.