Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The State of NASA is Neat at Plum Brook


As with the past few years, NASA held their "State of NASA" across several of their centers last week on February 9th - Ames Research at Moffet Field, CA; Armstrong Flight Research at Edwards AFB, CA; Glenn's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, OH; Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD; Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech Pasadena, CA; Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX; Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL; Langley Research in Hampton, VA; Marshall Spaceflight in Huntsville, AL; and Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, MS.

Last year I had the great honor of being a last-minute addition to Langley, thanks to a good recommendation to their PAO by Angela Gibson (fellow #SpaceSister, and Langley's resident Space Tweep). This year, I wanted to apply and go somewhere new, but also in a driveable distance. Cleveland is about an 8 hour drive. The next closest center (Marshall) is over 13 hours. Um, yeah.
I was actually very excited to go, because I know people who have been to Glenn Research and, judging by their social media postings, it was not going to be a waste of a drive. First of all, I had no idea before this that Glenn had two completely separate facilities - their main research complex at Lewis Field in Cleveland, and the Plum Brook Facility in Sandusky. NASA, what else are you hiding from me?! (Probably nothing - I'm simply bad at investigating.)

Fun background tidbits about Plum Brook before the cool tour breakdown:
Plum Brook is named for the brook (not creek - that's a Colonial Colloquialism!) running through the land NASA uses. The brook is named after the variety of plum trees found all over, the bitter fruit of which the Delaware Native Americans used to make deer pemmican. They do quite a bit of controlled brush burning as well (by a certified specialist, and retired biology teacher), replanting the opened up areas with native field grasses and flowers that had been pushed out by the brambled overgrowth. This is promoting healthy native wildlife populations to reenter the immediate area, and they are a major stopping point for Monarch Butterflies in their migrations, as well as a safe haven for honeybees. Plum Brook was also the site of WWII gunpowder bunkers (manufactured on-site, then called Plum Brook Ordinance Works).
I feel bad because the guy on our bus was going on and on and I couldn't remember everything he said. I'm sure the people at the Social representing 'official' media outlets simply tuned him out but I could listen to that all day. I need a notepad. Please remind me for the next time.

Okay, I know why you're really here - what did we see? What are the cool things up in Ohio and what are they using them for (also, what were they used for in the past)? I know what my three readers like.
The first stop in my group (we split in two) at the Space Power Facility [SPF] (which houses the world's largest and most powerful Space Environment Simulation Facilities [SES], by the way. It's kind of your 'one-stop shop' for qualifying flight craft for spaceflight.) was to the Mechanical Vibration Facility [MVF]. This is the largest capacity and most powerful spacecraft shaker system. In the photos, you see part of a second stage of the Ares 1 rocket bolted as a calibration test article, but they are preparing everything we toured at SPF for Orion. The MVF tests each three axes, the shaking accomplished using 4 horizontal and 16 vertical actuators. There is an incredible amount of seismic protection and vibration isolation systems in place, (1/2 foot of steel on top of 19 feet of concrete tied to the bedrock using 50 foot tensioned anchors), AND STILL they told us that while wearing hard hats outside the facility, when they fired it up to approve it for testing people's hats were popping off their heads - the vibrations are so pronounced. Some people even get sick. 

These are mass analogs for the Orion Capsule, top and bottom

To the left of the MVF, also in the Vibroacoustic Highbay, is the Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility, or RATF (pronounced 'Ratif'). This is the world's most powerful spacecraft acoustic testing chamber, and I've been in some spacecraft acoustic testing chambers. They are not joking around with this one. The walls are 6' thick concrete, and the 36 horns can create overall sound pressure of up to 163 dB (with upgrades to 166 dB in the works). By comparison, 140 dB is considered equivalent to a jet aircraft 50m away. In addition, it can create a broad spectrum of audio frequencies from 25 - 10,000 Hz. 
Behind our guide (the facility manager Robin Brown) is a test table, with a few of the 19 control microphones set up. 

The bottom of the door to get your goods in. They are not joking around.

Moving east, we head into the space simulation vacuum chamber that shames all other vacuum chambers, and...well...let me have Brian Cox explain a little:
Glenn Plum Brook is super ~SUPER~ proud of this video

Entry into the Vacuum Chamber
Walking through the chamber annulus

The Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber, the world's largest at 122ft high and a diameter of 100ft, was built for both nuclear and non-nuclear testing, though only the latter have been performed at the facility. Measuring pressure in Torr, where 1 Torr equals 1/760 of a standard earth atmosphere (atm), the vacuum chamber can reach a vacuum of 2x10⁻⁶ Torr in less than 8 hours. Quick Torrs for you: Mars is ~5 Torr, outside ISS is 10⁻⁹ Torr, and outer space is anywhere from 10⁻⁶ to greater than 3x10⁻¹⁷ Torr. In other words: they're coming pretty darn close to creating space inside those concrete and aluminum walls.
In addition, they have a shroud, which they fancily call a "Cryoshroud" (pictured below) which can both heat and chill the testing components, using a system of gaseous and liquid nitrogen. Because we all know that not only do you have to survive the deep dark cold of space, but also the scorching bright heat of space!

Next, we headed next door to the Assembly Highbay, where they are currently in the middle of building an Orion Service Module structural test article. Not the largest highbay facility you'll see in the agency by any means, but anything is dwarfed by what we just walked out of.

One of the three faring panels for the capsule. Did I touch it? No. Was I close enough? YES

After a (not-nearly-as-romantic-as-you-get-when-you-go-to-a-NASASocial-at-Langly) bus ride and the history lessons I mentioned toward the top, we arrived out at the B-2 Facility, or Spacecraft Propulsion Research. This facility was built in the 1960s to test the Centaur rocket upper stages, then upgraded in the 90s to handle testing of the Boeing Delta III program. This test chamber is a bit smaller, but still boasting of being the agency's third largest, at 62ft tall and 38ft in diameter. Everyone wants to test at the facility (private launch companies and foreign partners alike), but nobody wants to fork over any funds into upkeep and upgrades, which B-2 could really use. However, they have been asked by the overarching agency heads to do studies on what it would take to test SLS's second stage. There is a lot more to the facility, and I admit I was more excited about going into a vacuum chamber that tests hot fires to pay that much attention. More reason to return!

The lid has the capability to "burp" excess gas in overpressurization event and it vents out through the facility's ceiling.
Copper cold wall for LN2 supercooling. Very unique and extremely expensive to build today.
That guy is me.
You can see where the engine is placed for live firing during testing (they can handle long-duration fires)

Just some STEREO Art at B-2, because Sun Art is best

♪ Oh, and can I tell you what I'm the most excited about? 
Glenn is having not one, but TWO Open Houses!! Lewis Field in May and Plum Brook in June! You should go to one (or both - I'll see you there!)