Who's Who at NASA

NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA

Dr. Karen Jackson
In a crash, keeping the occupants alive and uninjured is paramount. In order to study the dynamics of an impact, military and general aviation aircraft, like cars, must be tested for their ability to keep their riders safe. A part of Structural Dynamics Branch in the Research and Technology Directorate at NASA Langley, the Landing and Impact Research Facility (LandIR) tests aircraft by crashing them. Dr. Karen Jackson is part of the research team.

NASA Tech Briefs: Explain the Landing and Impact Research Facility, and how does it fit into NASA?

Dr. Karen Jackson: The facility has had a long history. It was originally built in the early 1960s, and was used as a lunar landing research facility to allow the Apollo astronauts to practice the last 150 feet of descent onto the lunar surface. The surface underneath the gantry was cratered to look like the Moon, and the astronauts would climb up into mock-ups of the Lunar Excursion Modules, and then they would practice landing. Through a series of load-augmentation, thrusters, and what have you, they could recreate or simulate the actual landing on the Moon.

As the Apollo program was coming to a close, the facility was converted over to a full-scale test facility. As such, it was used, from 1974 to 1983, in running a cooperative research program with the FAA to look at general aviation crash-worthiness. And it just so happened that there was a flood at the Piper plant in Pennsylvania, and we were able to obtain a whole cadre of aircraft for crash testing that we didn’t have to purchase — we basically got them because the FAA wouldn’t certify them for air-worthiness. We got them for scrap aluminum value. We build a whole research program on that.

LandIR has a lot of different uses. We’ve had customers come to us and want to do a variety of different tests. We certified all the Wire Strike Protection Systems (WSPS) for eight different army helicopters, the passive blade-type devices that go on the top and bottom of the cabin. They prevent the helicopter from getting caught in wires or power cables during close-to-the-earth flight. It’s prevented a lot of accidents; and that’s a crossover into the commercial world as well. Most police helicopters now have that wire stripe protection capability.

Right now, the LandIR has gone back to its roots. We’re evaluating landing and attenuating systems for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the Orion. These are not for lunar impacts, but when the capsule comes back to Earth. We’re looking at where to land it, on water or on land, and various attenuation systems like airbags, retrorockets, and passive energy absorbing struts. All those concepts are being evaluated now. It has been used to simulate terminal velocity impacts of a Mars Sample Return aero shell and passive energy attenuating system.

As it fits into NASA, LandIR is owned and maintained by the Structural Dynamics Branch. The Structural Dynamics Branch is in the Research and Technology Directorate here at NASA Langley. Because we support both aeronautics and aerospace research, we go “across code” at Headquarters.

NTB: Describe the layout of the facility.

Dr. Jackson: We have a gantry that is 240 feet high, and is a steel truss structure. A lot of people describe it as a Lego Erector set on steroids. It’s a series of three A-frames, so there is a canted leg that goes up 240 feet, and then there is a horizontal component, and then there is another leg on the opposite side canted at the same degree down to the ground. At the top of the gantry we have crosswalks that connect all three A-frames, and at one end we have a bridge. The bridge has a winch on it that is used to pull the test article back to the drop height to release it for the test.

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