NASA Landing and Impact Research Facility: To the moon and beyond

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class R. Alex Durbin
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade ... not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard..."

Eight years after President John. F. Kennedy declared this goal, two men walked on the lunar surface. For those eight years, engineers and researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration labored to solve complex problems inherent in spaceflight. Their work culminated in a "giant leap for mankind" in 1969.

Before Neil Armstrong took that small step on the moon, he was walking around NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., suspended on a system of slings and cables.

Towering above the rapidly-evolving world around it, the 240-foot tall Lunar Lander Research Facility remains unchanged in appearance, but has undergone several functional transformations in its long life. It all began more than 50 years ago with Kennedy's vision.

While planning the Apollo space program, NASA determined its success ultimately depended on whether astronauts could learn to safely land on the moon's surface and return to orbit.
However, a major obstacle presented itself as the NASA scientists designed a viable training plan for the astronauts. The scientists realized a manned capsule would handle drastically differently in the moon's gravitational atmosphere, a sixth of Earth's gravity. Tackling the problem of how to reproduce a low-gravity environment became NASA's first step in its journey to the moon.

"The astronauts needed simulations to determine landing conditions while in the moon's gravity," said Richard Boitnott, NASA Langley Research Center senior aerospace engineer. "It was imperative to learn everything possible before sending the astronauts to space."

In an effort to overcome this obstacle, William Hewitt Phillips, a respected NASA aircraft specialist, conceived a solution. Phillips proposed the construction of the Lunar Lander Research Facility, a training simulator that allowed NASA engineers to study landing processes while giving Apollo astronauts critical hands-on training.

Completed in 1965, the facility located at NASA's Langley campus featured an A-frame steel structure able to simulate the final 150 feet of the descent. An overhead suspension system known as a gantry counteracted all weight but the gravity felt on the moon's surface.

"Analytical simulations can not always translate into real-world results, making physical testing important," said Boitnott. "Real-world tests show results that we may not have ever thought of. We use this data with analytical results to identify potential shortfalls."

To understand the potential variables of space, the facility used unique methods to accurately simulate the moon's gravitational force. Engineers were able to use the gantry to create a lunar-walking simulator.

This was achieved by suspending an astronaut on a system of slings and cables and placing him on an inclined plane. By walking on the plane parallel to the ground while suspended, engineers were able to mimic the conditions experienced while walking on the moon.

In another effort to make the training as realistic as possible, engineers created a "moonscape," complete with craters, using dust thought to resemble the material found on the moon's surface.

On July 16, 1969, the world watched in anticipation as three men rocketed skyward in the culmination of nearly a decade's worth of research and planning. Just four days later, Neil Armstrong and Ed "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. were the first humans to step foot on the moon.

By the time the Apollo program ended three years later and the astronaut training facilities were moved to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, the LLRF had trained 24 astronauts for lunar missions.

With the end of manned-moon missions, it seemed the research facility was no longer needed. However, NASA found a new use for the facility by converting it into a full-scale aircraft crash test facility.

The gantry is the only structure of its kind in the United States, and only one of two worldwide offering a pendulum-style test center that allows researchers to control vertical and horizontal velocities, making it uniquely suited to recreate crash scenes.

The structure was redesignated the Impact Dynamics Research Facility in 1972. Engineers used data from the center's research as baseline information and recommendations to institute safety regulations in both military and civilian organizations including the Federal Aviation Administration.

The research team uses state-of-the-art analysis tools and test mannequins to model crashes, determine structural integrity and identify the "crash pulse," or the time it takes for the tested object to decelerate after impact.

"[The facility] has been a national resource for conducting crash tests for airplanes, helicopters and other manned vehicles," said Boitnott. "[The researchers] can control the exact conditions of a crash, as well as gather a great deal of post-test information that contributes to safety worldwide."

In 1985, the LLRF was designated a National Historic Landmark to preserve its significance and contributions to the space program.

With a multitude of testing complete and no foreseeable need for the IDRF, NASA decided to finally close the historic facility in 2003, and it was placed on a NASA list of structures planned for demolition.

With President George W. Bush's announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, the facility was once again adapted to be used in support of the agency's new Constellation Program, aimed to gain experience in operating outside of Earth's atmosphere and to develop technologies needed for exploring space.

The facility was reopened in 2005 to conduct landing tests on the newly-developed exploration vehicle, Orion. Its new mission closely resembled the original space mission of the facility.
It was renamed the Landing and Impact Research Facility. Minor modifications were made to include installation of a new support system to facilitate full-scale Orion testing.

In an effort to analyze all possible outcomes, NASA determined it was necessary to test Orion's capabilities and determine if the craft was structurally sound to touch down on land or water upon return to Earth's atmosphere. To gather the data, a new hydro-impact basin was installed to fully test the Orion's capabilities. The basin, a 115-foot long, 90-foot wide pool reaching 20 feet deep, was completed in January 2011.

Although the Constellation Program was cancelled, Boitnott and the facility's team continue to test the Orion capsule, as it is planned to be used as an escape capsule on the International Space Station. The Orion capsule was recast as a "Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle," and became NASA's vehicle for manned flight beyond low earth orbit.

"We constantly strive to innovate practical experiments during testing because our research can save lives," said Boitnott.

The team's constant drive and dedication are testament to Kennedy's famous words.

"Those who dare ... can achieve greatness."

As humanity reaches further into the cosmos and surpasses the dream sparked by Kennedy decades ago, the NASA Landing and Impact Research Facility remains, ready to adapt to new challenges set before it.