PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. -- For decades they lay in darkness nearly three miles below the Atlantic Ocean's surface.
Now, the rusted and mangled remains of Saturn V rocket engines that may have launched the first men to the moon sit aboard a salvage ship expected to arrive Thursday in Port Canaveral, Fla., their first stop en route to museums.
A three-week expedition funded by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos successfully recovered enough components to restore and display two of the F-1 engines that helped Apollo missions blast off from Kennedy Space Center, Bezos said Wednesday
"We've seen an underwater wonderland -- an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program," Bezos wrote in an update posted online.
"Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible."
Bezos, who also started the private space firm Blue Origin, announced a year ago that his team had located the five engines that blasted the first moon landing mission off its pad in 1969.
However, it's not yet known on which missions the recovered engines flew.
The parts' serial numbers were all or partly missing, erased by the engines' high-speed ocean impacts or corrosion from sitting more than 40 years in salt water on the ocean floor.
Still NASA property, the engines, once restored, are expected to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
"This is a historic find, and I congratulate the team for its determination and perseverance in the recovery of these important artifacts of our first efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
"We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff's desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display."
NASA blessed the recovery project and is now assisting efforts to research the flight hardware's history, but otherwise was not involved in the privately funded expedition.
State-of-the-art deep sea sonar found the engine parts on the ocean floor.
Then the crew aboard the 290-foot vessel Seabed Worker dispatched tethered, remotely operated vehicles more than 14,000 feet down to inspect the pieces.
"The objects themselves are gorgeous," said Bezos.
Robotic arm operators threaded slings around the misshapen and partially buried parts and deposited them in giant baskets hoisted to the surface. Cranes delicately lifted them onto the ship's deck.
Working in pitch darkness, floating as if in microgravity, the deep sea vehicles conjured echoes of the Apollo missions.
"The blackness of the horizon. The gray and colorless ocean floor. Only the occasional deep sea fish broke the illusion," Bezos said.
Bezos himself took part in an expedition crew that numbered nearly 60, according to a photo posted online.
The team included a diver who discovered the main ship's wheel of Titanic and an underwater archeologist who oversaw recovery expeditions to the Civil War ironclad warship USS Monitor near Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Bezos says the F-1, the most powerful liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed, "is still a modern wonder."
A cluster of five powered the first stage of Saturn V rockets with a combined 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Intact, each engine measured 19 feet tall by 12 feet wide and weighed over 18,000 pounds.
Watching the Apollo 11 moon landing as a 5-year-old fueled Bezos' enthusiasm for science, engineering and exploration, and he said he hoped recovering the historic engines would encourage more young people to invent and explore.
"We're excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing," he said.