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The World’s Largest Jet Engine Is Already More Powerful Than America’s First Manned Space Rocket

Navy pilot Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space on May 5, 1961 — 55 years ago this week. His capsule sat atop the Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket, propelled by a single engine that produced 78,000 pounds of thrust.

Although space flight still remains the domain of astronauts and a few fit millionaires who can pay their way to orbit, most of us can experience multiples of the power Shepard was riding every day. New Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 aircraft, for example, which shuttle daily between major global destinations, come endowed with four GEnx-2B engines that generate a combined 266,000 pounds.

In April, GE Aviation started testing the world’s largest jet engine, the GE9X. Early in May, it hit 105,000 pounds of thrust at GE’s test stand in Peebles, Ohio. Boeing’s next-generation wide-body jet — the 777X — will have one of these giants slung under each wing.

The GE9X engine is so new and so large that GE Aviation engineers reached out to colleagues in other GE businesses with experience in building really big machines to help out. Workers at GE Oil & Gas in Massa, Italy, who build towering power plants for oil and gas fields, helped test the engine’s compressor. A massive computer-controlled mill  (see below) at GE Power’s brand-new factory in Greenville, South Carolina, machined the engine’s huge compressor blades. GE calls this exchange of technology and ideas the GE Store.

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These compressor blades for the GE9X jet engine were made at GE Power’s brand Advanced Manufacturing Works in Greenville, South Carolina. Image credit: GE Power

But how much, exactly, is 105,000 pounds of thrust? Take a look.

In 1942, a top-secret group of GE engineers built the first American jet engine. Called I-A, the engine produced just 1,300 pounds of thrust. But just a few years later, the company’s second production engine, the J33, developed to power America’s first operational fighter jet — the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star — generated 4,200 pounds. In 1946, the plane set a transcontinental speed record flying from New York to California in 4 hours and 13 minutes. At 584 mph, the Shooting Star was faster than any plane flown by either side in World War II. The J33 was also the first U.S. jet engine with an axial compressor (see below), the same kind that now powers virtually all jet engines, including the GE9X. True to the GE Store, the company originally developed the design for steam turbines.

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An image of an axial compressor (the left part of the shaft) and turbine (the right side of the shaft) at the world’s largest gas turbine factory in Greenville, South Carolina. Image credit: GE Power

GE Aviation’s F414 engines power a range of fighter jets, from Boeing’s Super Hornet to Saab’s next-generation Gripen. Each F414 engine generates 22,000 pounds of thrust.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron 102 parked on the bow of the USS Kitty Hawk.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron 102 parked on the bow of the USS Kitty Hawk. Image credit: Getty Images

GE Aviation also designed jet engines for the Air Force One fleet, a pair of highly customized Boeing 747 planes that U.S. presidents use for travel. The current aircraft use four CF6-80C2 engines, which can generate as much as 61,960 pounds each. Four GEnx-2B engines will power the new Air Force One, which will replace the existing fleet sometime after 2017. They produce 66,500 pounds each.

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A CF6-80C2 jet engine, the same kind that powers Air Force One. Image credit: GE Aviation

Modified jet engines also serve as power plants on ships and elsewhere. A total of 33 navies around the world use the LM2500 marine gas turbine to power their vessels. The core of the turbine comes from the CF6-6 jet engine, which generates 40,000 pounds. It was developed in the late 1960s to power Douglas DC-10 planes.

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This Arleigh Burke-class destroyer draws power from LM2500 turbines. Image credit: Shutterstock

The LM2500 also powers large passenger ships, including the Queen Mary 2, and the world’s fastest ship, the Francisco, which can reach 58.1 knots (107.6 kilometers per hour).

The GE9X is the largest jet engine in the world, as wide as the body of a Boeing 737. But it’s not the most powerful. That title belongs to its parent, the GE90, which today powers most Boeing 777 planes. In 2002, a GE90-115B jet engine set the world record by producing 127,900 pounds of thrust.

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The GE90 is the world’s most powerful jet engine. Image credit: GE Aviation

The GE90-115B ran for approximately 60 hours at triple-red-line conditions (maximum fan speed, core speed and exhaust gas temperature) to evaluate the engine at its operational limits and demonstrate its capability beyond the most extreme operating conditions.

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