- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - Jay Larsen was towing a chirping sonar device three miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, trolling the Bermuda Triangle for lost artifacts, when he discovered a trove of buried treasure that had spent more than 40 years lost at sea.

Larsen, a Flathead Valley native whose deep ocean surveying company, SL Hydrospheric LLC, is based out of Whitefish, was tapped two years ago to join the Apollo F-1 Engine Search and Recovery Team, led by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

His assignment was to locate one of the most powerful machines ever built - the F-1 engine of Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket, which put three American astronauts on the moon.

After three weeks on board a retired Navy vessel, scanning the ocean floor with his specialized, 6,000-pound sonar vehicle, which hangs from the ship submerged in a watery abyss a full mile deeper than the Titanic wreckage, Larsen’s equipment began pinging off a graveyard of historic artifacts.

The Synthetic Aperture Sonar returned high-resolution images of the sea floor bristling with debris fields from a host of Apollo missions - thrust chambers, gas generators, injectors, heat exchangers, turbines, fuel manifolds, and dozens of other components from the colossal rocket engines. Still a modern wonder, the F-1 engine has 1.5 million pounds of thrust and 32 million horsepower, and is 18.5 feet tall and 12.2 feet wide.

On July 16, 1969, five of the F-1 engines were used to power the Saturn V rocket’s initial stage, lifting the booster off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. After firing in concert for nearly three minutes, the F-1 engines were jettisoned, and fell from a height of about 40 miles before crashing into the ocean at terminal velocity. The force of the impact tore and mangled the engine parts, which sank to the seafloor in twisted disarray.

Several days later, Neil Armstrong alighted on the moon.

In a letter announcing the discovery and recovery of the engine parts, Amazon’s Bezos summed up his ambitions behind the expedition, calling it an homage to the spirit of human exploration and innovation.

“Millions of people were inspired by the Apollo Program. I was five years old when I watched Apollo 11 unfold on television, and without any doubt it was a big contributor to my passions for science, engineering, and exploration,” Bezos wrote. “A year or so ago, I started to wonder, with the right team of undersea pros, could we find and potentially recover the F-1 engines that started mankind’s mission to the moon?”

For Larsen, the most rewarding part of the expedition was that it was so richly steeped in history.

“That is what I love about going out on these searches. You go out there for a month and you are basically going through a big history lesson. You get this huge injection of history, and it’s very pointed,” he said. “To be part of the expedition was pretty amazing.”

Last week, Larsen and the search and recovery team were honored by The Explorers Club - an ultra-famous New York club of legendary explorers, whose vaunted members include the first Mount Everest climber Edmund Hillary, as well as the first moon walker, Armstrong.

Larsen and his wife, Katrina, attended an awards dinner at the storied Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan, where they noshed exotic hors d’oeuvres, including Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Bezos, Buzz Aldrin and Elon Musk.

“The awards dinner was really, really inspiring. To be in an audience and hear speeches by Jeff Bezos, Buzz Aldrin, Brian Green, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and other great innovators and explorers was incredibly, again, inspiring,” Larsen said. “Katrina and I had one of the nights of our lives interacting with so many interesting people and we were especially proud to be a part of the team that was actually receiving one of the awards, with our homegrown company out of Whitefish.”

Led by explorer and attorney David Concannon, one of only a handful of people to have joined The Explorers Club before the age of 30, the Apollo F-1 Engine Search and Recovery Team received the Citation of Merit for an Outstanding Feat of Exploration. The award was presented to Bezos and the team by the club’s president, Alan Nichols, and Apollo 11 astronaut Aldrin, who in 1969 joined Armstrong to become the first men to walk on the moon.

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