As far as I know, CNC machining was being used in the aerospace industry in the 1960s. Were such machines use for the F1 engines?


At least some parts for the Apollo program were CNC-machined: e.g. the frame of the flight computer. I haven't found any documents that confirm CNC-machining was used on the F1, though.

On one hand, those engines contain thousands of parts, using all sorts of manufacturing techniques, so it's possible CNC was used on some parts. OTOH, CNC was new enough at the time to be considered newsworthy so if it was used, there'd be a story about it somewhere. My (preliminary) conclusion: CNC was probably not used on the F1 engines.

Some features of the F-1 would have benefited from CNC machining. The nozzle walls consist of a series of coolant tubes stacked together. This was a very labour-intensive process. Modern engines often use nozzle walls that have cooling passages CNC-machined into them, so you have a single part instead of hundreds.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ sometimes, the best answer we can give is "maybe". $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Jun 7 '17 at 6:21
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I don't know about NASA and the Apollo program, but I'm fairly aware of history of machining; around that time fully digital CNC was considered more of a gimmick than actual technology. There were very complex punch-card based multi-purpose machines for bulk manufacturing (capable e.g. of applying 12 different operations in sequence to a work piece - drilling, rolling, grinding, etc) - but "mission-critical" devices were made on hand-operated machines, by expert machinists, capable of attaining better precision than any fully automatic machine at the time. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jun 7 '17 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ @SF. CNC is often used whenever the shape you are cutting is not a straight line or a circular arc. It wouldn't necessarily be an indication of precision at that time as much as it would be an indicator of the need for a shape that's just hard to make otherwise. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 7 '17 at 15:17
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: At the time there were many other techniques that allowed doing that - not as readily as CNC, but, for the time, at superior precision. For example, print the pattern/curve on transparency, photo-transfer to soft metal plate, etch, then use a copying mill/lathe following the pattern, possibly shrinking it for superior precision using a pantograph mechanism to create the item. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jun 7 '17 at 15:25
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: Mind you, I have no clue what NASA did; that was just the general machining ''state of the art'. Grandpa was CTO at a heavy industry factory. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jun 7 '17 at 16:02

The development of the F1 engine was started very early in 1958. The first test of the combustion chamber was done in 1961. At that time probably no computer controlled milling existed. MTBF of the computers of that time was too short to be useful for milling a part in many hours.

If some parts were milled under manual control at first why change to CNC milling later?


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.