Impact Dynamics Research Facility
|Center:||Langley Research Center|
|Historic Eligibility:||National Historic Landmark|
|Important Tests:||Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), Jet Shoes|
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When President John F. Kennedy confidently predicted in 1961 that the United States would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the task of implementing what seemed to be a wildly ambitious goal fell to the engineers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The success of the chosen lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) strategy ultimately depended on whether the astronauts could learn to safely land the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) on the Moon’s surface and return into orbit to dock with the mother ship. A major obstacle in designing a training procedure, however, was that the LEM would handle far differently in the Moon’s atmosphere, with 1/6th the gravitational pull of Earth’s. The problem thus became how to reproduce the operation of the LEM in a low gravitational environment. The solution was conceived as an erector set model in the home workshop of W. Hewitt Phillips (see autobiography of W. Hewitt Phillips). The solution came in the form of the Lunar Lander Research Facility (LLRF), a training simulator that allowed NASA engineers to study the complex lunar landing process and give the Apollo astronauts critical hands-on pilot training in the LEM. Completed in 1965 at a cost of $3.5 million, the most obvious feature of the LLRF was its enormous gantry, an A-frame steel structure measuring 400 feet long by 240 feet high. The LLRF simulated lunar gravity on the LEM through an overhead partial-suspension system that counteracted all but 1/6th of the Earth’s gravitational force, and allowed the vehicle to fly unobstructed within a relatively large area. The LLRF also was used as a lunar-walking simulator, with subjects walking on inclined planes while suspended by a system of slings and cables.
Until the end of the Apollo program in 1972, the LLRF was used to train 24 astronauts for lunar missions, including Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., of Apollo 11, the first men to walk on the Moon. Armstrong offered what was perhaps the greatest tribute to the importance of the LLRF in the success of the Apollo program. When asked what it was like to land on the Moon, he replied: “Like Langley.” (See US Postal Service stamps issued in September 1969 depicting the "First Man on the Moon.")
Although the end of manned lunar missions made the LLRF redundant by the early 1970s, NASA quickly found a new use for this Langley landmark, converting it into a full-scale aircraft crash test facility. Redesignated the Impact Dynamics Research Facility (IDRF), it was used to conduct important research on aircraft and other vehicles between 1974 and 2003. With no foreseen future mission need for the IDRF and with limited funding for maintenance and upkeep of such a large structure, NASA closed the facility in 2003 and it was placed on the list of buildings and structures planned for demolition at LaRC. As luck would have it, with President Bush’s announcement in 2004 of the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA determined that the IDRF could be adaptively re-used to support the Agency’s new Constellation Program.
The facility was re-opened in 2005 to conduct landing tests associated with the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) named ORION. Ironically, the testing would be remarkably similar to the original purpose of the LLRF – testing of the LEM. The facility was re-named the Landing Impact Research Facility (LandIR) and minor modifications were made to include installation of a new parallel winch system to support full-scale ORION testing, and replacement of an elevator. Since NASA needed the capability to determine if the ORION landing would be via land or water, a more significant modification involved installation of a new hydro-impact basin (splashdown pool) underneath the Gantry. Construction of the hydro-impact basin, which is 115 feet long, 90 feet wide and 20 feet deep, was completed in January 2011. Although the Constellation Program has since been cancelled by President Obama, the LandIR plans to continue performing impact testing since the ORION capsule will still be used to service the International Space Station.
The historical significance of the LLRF and its many contributions to the U.S. space program were formally recognized when the facility was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The LEM, designated a national historic landmark in 1986, is on display in the Virginia Air and Space Center/Hampton Roads History Center.
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1969 Moon Landing Stamps. The Times-Herald. Newport News, VA. 10 September 1969
2003 Designing the Lunar Landing Research Facility, Hewitt Phillips
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The Lunar Landing Research Facility allowed astronauts to practice landing a lunar module on the moon and how to walk in a 1/6th gravity environment. The facility was designed by Langley Research Center engineer Hewitt Phillips.
The lunar module used hydrogen peroxide as its fuel source and it was suspended from a 73 meter high gantry. The gantry was 122 meters long, and the combination of this height and length let the module move in all directions. The module could even roll when suspended from the gantry! The astronauts liked this simulator because if the module started pitching and rolling uncontrollably testing would stop and the astronauts would be hanging safely from the gantry. This was a much better alternative to an out of control module crashing to the ground.
The ground below the Lunar Landing Research Facility was created to simulate the moon's surface, with craters and similar shading. Interestingly, the Lunar Landing Research Facility was created to be a research facility, but after a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle at Edwards Air Force Base crashed and deemed dangerous the simulator at Langley was used.
The facility was also used to allow astronauts to practice walking in 1/6th gravity. Astronauts were suspended from the gantry at an angle of almost 180 degrees and walked along a fence erected in the facility.