What goes up must come down, and it will be NASA Langley Research Center’s job to make sure that when astronauts return from space, they land safely. On June 8, NASA Langley will break ground on a $1.7 million Hydro Impact Basin that will serve to validate and certify that future space vehicles, such as NASA’s Orion crew module, are designed for safe water landings.
The water basin will be 115 feet (35 m) long, 90 feet (27.4 m) wide and 20 feet (6.1 m) deep and will be built at the west end of Langley’s historic Landing and Impact Research Facility, also known as the Gantry, where Neil Armstrong trained for walking on the moon. Construction will begin mid-June and will be completed by December 2010.
A series of water impact tests will be conducted using Orion drop test articles beginning in the spring of 2011. These tests will initially validate and improve the computer models of impact and acoustic loads used in the design and engineering process, and will ultimately qualify the final vehicle design for flight.
“We are excited about being a part of the nation’s next space vehicle and it’s landing system,” said Lynn Bowman, who is managing the series of tests for the Orion project. “Our team has been involved with furthering the knowledge and testing of space vehicle landing systems and their components for the past few years.”
The skill sets that NASA Langley engineers and technicians bring to the table as well as the capability of the gantry are two of the reasons the basin is being built at the center.
Bowman explains: “The Gantry provides the ability to control the orientation of the test article while imparting a vertical and horizontal impact velocity, which is required for human rating vehicles.”
“This existing capability when combined with the water basin will provide a complete facility needed for landing certification of any manned spacecraft for water landing,” added Bowman. “Even vehicles that do not perform a nominal water landing will need to certify for launch abort landings into water.”
Additionally, NASA Langley has more than 40 years experience with conducting controlled impact/landing tests of instrumented vehicles, said Lisa Jones, head of the Structural Testing Branch at NASA Langley.
NASA Langley’s Gantry, built in 1963, was originally used to model lunar gravity. But after the Apollo program ended, it was transformed into the Impact Dynamics Research Facility and was used to test the crash worthiness of aircraft and rotorcraft.
In 2006 the Gantry experienced a revitalization as the country shifted its focus back to space exploration. The 240-foot (73 m) high Gantry provided engineers and astronauts a means to prepare for Orion’s return to Earth.
When testing began in 2006, it was thought that a dry landing on Earth would be the preferred landing for the Orion capsule as it returned from space. During this phase, engineers studied the use of airbags during landings and dropped a total of 73 test articles, including a full-scale model of the Crew exploration vehicle, with different generations of airbags attached to the bottom.
More tests followed, including a series that evaluated the crew module’s energy absorbing seat system, which protects the crew during a wide range of landing conditions. Langley engineers designed and built a 20,000-pound (9,072 kg) piece of steel hardware called the Crew Impact Attenuation System (CIAS) test article, which was dropped onto crushable honeycomb material sized to represent a broad range of landing conditions Orion could face.
In all, 117 drop tests were performed.
“This team really cranked out high quality testing and excellent analysis,” said Bowman, who managed the Orion Landing System Team. “117 tests is a record.”
Now that ground-landing tests are complete and the decision came to design Orion for landing in the water, the team at NASA Langley is ready to shift its focus to water. The team has already gotten its feet wet with a series of elemental water impact testing that began this past fall.
During these tests engineers dropped a 20-inch (50.8 cm) hemisphere from five feet (1.5 m) into a four-foot (1.2 m) deep pool so that they could build confidence in a design tool they might use to analyze data during the full-scale water impact tests to be done at the basin