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The NASA You May Not Know

As I mentioned before, I spent yesterday at NASA’s Langley Research Facility as part of the NASA Tweetup program. The official version of the event is here, and here’s one of several Flickr pages from the event. (You can always spot me in group photos ’cause I’m the one in the black pinstriped fedora.) We even made NASA’s picture of the day, though of course this was taken by a much better photographer with a better camera than most of us in attendance.

A partial view of the 240-foot-tall gantry structure used to test vertical impacts, including the water impact test of the Orion capsule we were able to watch yesterday. This same structure was also used to test the Lunar Landing Module for Apollo in the 1960s. Obviously this view doesn't begin to convey how huge the frame is.

Langley itself predates NASA by many years: the laboratory was founded in 1917 as an aeronautics research center, and the “aero” part of NASA is still a major part of what they do there. As a result, Langley may not seem as sexy as Kennedy or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with their emphases on the Space Shuttle and robotic exploration. Nevertheless, Langley has been key in the technology associated with those other projects, and researchers there helped make sure the Shuttle, the Apollo missions, and many others could do what they were designed to do. Project Mercury began there, the lunar lander was tested at Langley (which involved building a huge mock-up of the Moon’s surface), the Shuttle’s design was put through its paces at wind tunnels in the facility, and now the Orion capsule is being developed on site. Neil Armstrong trained there, and if we ever send a human being to Mars, whatever vehicle they go in will probably be developed (at least in part) at Langley.

A poster for the inflatable reentry shield concept, with the edge of a miniature version made of Kevlar. (At this point in the tour, my camera's battery was running low, so I didn't get a good picture of the shield, unfortunately.)

Those of us who have ever done research know that “sexy” isn’t always synonymous with “important”, as much as we’d love it to be. I admit, I find most kinds of scientific research interesting on some level, even if it’s far removed from my own areas, but I’m probably not representative of the general population in that. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter how cool the science is if your instrument is destroyed in its transit to orbit, or how well you train your astronauts if the capsule they’re in burns up or crashes on reentry. On that note, we spoke with two researchers working on the next-generation inflatable reentry shields (made of Kevlar, the same stuff as bullet-proof jackets) which, if they can be implemented properly, would take up less space and weight than the solid metal variety.

The particle intake nozzle (the apparatus at the center of the image) on a NASA research airplane. Unfortunately, the planes were being stripped down for a complete inspection, so we weren't able to see the instruments in place.

Collecting pollution particles suspended in the atmosphere or studying them using lasers may not sound as exciting as the Hubble Space Telescope, but it’s essential research if we want to understand our changing climate. (Briefly: particulate pollution is not itself a cause of global warming, but it can be a marker of some of the problems surrounding it. Pollution can also effectively dim the amount of light coming from the Sun, masking some of the problems arising from greenhouse gas emissions. Knowing exactly what and where the pollution is can help with the total climate model.) To study these things, NASA researchers including Mike Obland (who turns out to be a friend of a friend in the small world of physics) fly instruments aboard small airplanes, shooting lasers through the atmosphere to measure scattering and absorption by particles, as well as directly collecting them for chemical analysis.

The Orion capsule on its pendulum, preparing for its splashdown test. My vantage point wasn't good enough to get a clear picture of the splashdown itself, but suffice it to say it was splasheriffic.

The final stop of the trip, as I mentioned in my previous post, was to the Hydro Impact Basin Facility, which is a fancy way to say they drop things into water and see if they survive the landing. We were actually able to see a real test of the Orion capsule, the updated version of the Apollo and Mercury capsules for the 21st century. The capsule was attached to a large swinging platform (have I mentioned how ubiquitous pendulums are yet?) at an angle of 17°, and at a prearranged part of the swing was released to fall into the water. The capsule is filled with sensors to measure acceleration, shear, rotation, strain, and so forth: all the things that can hurt the human and scientific cargo within.

After landing in the impact basin, the Orion capsule tipped over, which as you can guess isn't optimal for the contents inside.

Unfortunately, the capsule tipped over into its “stable 2” configuration—engineering-speak for “upside-down”. Disappointing both to us and to the researchers, but of course this was a test, not a demonstration of a completed project. The real work of such a test begins after all of the gawkers and VIPs are shipped back home, and I’m sure they’re all working very hard to figure out exactly what went wrong and determine how to correct it before the next test.

We did several more things that I may talk about later; one problem I found was that the day was so packed with activity, we hardly had time to absorb one bit of information before we were moved on to the next awesome thing (inflatable lunar habitats? cryogenic wind tunnels? a space shuttle pilot?). I would love to go back and talk to everyone again, so if anyone at NASA Langley is reading this: please invite me back, and I will happily interview your engineers, scientists, crews, whoever. This is the NASA most people don’t know, but should.

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5 Responses to “The NASA You May Not Know”


  1. 1 Michael C. Greenwood, Chief Engineer SPLASH Project November 10, 2011 at 15:49

    Matthew, It is important to say here that the Orion Water Impact Test, the last stop on your tour of Langley, was one of several tests that are on the fringe of the possible water landings for Orion. We are looking at “worst case” landing scenarios. The fact that the test article came to rest in Stable 2, by no means indicates that this test was a failure. Nothing “went wrong” with this test. In fact, quite the opposite. Our simulations indicated that this phenomenon was a likely event for the test conditions applied to the test article. Yes, there was disappointment amongst the engineers in that there are several systems that need to be checked after a Stable 2 that otherwise would not be checked; allowing us to proceed to the next test much sooner. While the Stable 2 scenario is not the primary goal of this project, it is a very valuable data point in the overall research effort for Orion. The primary objective of these test is met within the first 0.5 seconds of interaction between the water and the structure. Sensors taking pressure, strain, acceleration and deflection measurements in the heat shield and the back shell panels provide the primary data from these tests. We were glad to host the Tweetup Program and I was especially proud to be able to demonstrate this test for all those in attendance. And….you are right. Very few people outside of NASA will get to see what you did that day. And… you are also right; they should.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis November 11, 2011 at 09:25

      Thanks for that information – I don’t believe anyone told us that on Tuesday. (Allowing always for the possibility that they did, and I simply missed it.)

      And I definitely know that tests that don’t go exactly as planned are part of the process. I hope I didn’t make it sound like the test was an out-and-out failure, since that was not my intent.


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