Lisa Jones, NASA Landing and Impact Research Facility Manager, discusses the facility where the Apollo astronauts trained for the lunar landing.
Built in 1965 and originally named the Lunar Landing Research Facility, the structure provided a simulated lunar environment for the Apollo astronauts to practice the complex tasks of landing and walking on the Moon. Almost 50 years after the successful Apollo 11 mission, Jones recounts experiences of Apollo astronauts training at the facility, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- The design and layout of the historic gantry
- The research facility’s contributions to Apollo’s success
- How the facility may be used for future missions
Lisa Jones is the Facility Manager of the Landing and Impact Research Facility (LandIR), previously known as the Lunar Landing Research Facility, at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Jones has over 33 years of experience in full-scale dynamic testing at the facility. Tests have included crash testing of general aviation aircraft and military items, Orion water impact testing, and Commercial Crew landing system tests on soil and water. Jones earned a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech.
Neil Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.
Lisa Jones: When asked what landing on the Moon was like, Neil Armstrong said it was like Langley. They appreciated it because it really helped them to know how to land on the Moon.
Most of the training was done at night, so that it simulated more of what they would experience on the surface of the Moon.
There’s always that sparkle that we have this link to Apollo.
Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas. I’m Deana Nunley.
We’re only days away from the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the accomplishment of humanity’s longtime dream of walking on another celestial body.
The prime mission objective of Apollo 11 was stated simply: Perform a manned lunar landing and return.
Today on the podcast, we’ll get a closer look at a facility that helped prepare the Apollo astronauts for the successful Moon landing.
Our guest is Lisa Jones, the Facility Manager of the Landing and Impact Research Facility, formerly known as the Lunar Landing Research Facility, at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Lisa, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Jones: Thanks for having me.
Host: What was the Lunar Landing Research Facility’s role in the success of Apollo?
Jones: Well, the Lunar Landing Research Facility was used in training astronauts to land on the Moon’s surface. They started about 150 feet up, and actually the facility supported 5/6 of the weight of the vehicle, mimicking 1/6-g on the Moon. They picked a spot on the surface, the simulated surface below the gantry, and flew to that spot and trained that cycling.
They also used the facility to help with getting the astronauts to understand what it’s going to feel like to walk on the Moon. What they did is they hung the astronauts sideways and walked on a surface that wasn’t true vertical, but nine degrees off vertical, so that when you’re perpendicular to it, it actually simulated 1/6-g along your spine. It was called the Lunar Lander Gravity Simulator. Anyway, they would walk on the backstop. I guess it was really the Lunar Gravity Simulator, sorry, not Lunar Lander Gravity Simulator.
So, they would walk on the backstop, and when they would do that, it gave them a feel for how far they would go. They jumped how far they would go. Walter Cronkite actually was at the facility and actually did that back in the day. Many of the people I think would know who he is.
Basically, when they asked the astronauts what landing was like on the Moon, they said, “It’s like Langley. The only thing they probably could use more of is a little more dust on the surface.”
Host: Quite the compliment. Could you give us a description of the facility?
Jones: Well, it’s a gantry, if you can imagine something 240 feet tall, made out of steel, 400 feet long and 265 feet wide at the base. So, it looks like a bunch of As put together, the letter A put together. The bridge, this big crane, moved along the length of the facility, up to 30 feet per second, laterally 30 feet per second, a little trolley underneath, and it supported this vehicle hanging down that launched off the 150-foot level.
So, you’re up with a big crane on the top, moving by control of the astronaut saying, “I’m going to fly in this direction,” and it tracked along with it, a big marionette-looking device. They would launch from the 150-foot level, land on the surface below. Most of the training was done at night, so that it simulated more of what they would experience on the surface of the Moon.
There was a bank of lights at the end of the facility that gave a shadow of about a three-degree angle, so a really elongated shadow. So, it kind of felt like they were there. They actually had to jettison, because it only supported 5/6 of the weight of the vehicle. They had to actually fly it and use motors to actually jettison and move the vehicle around, so that they could get to where they wanted to be on the simulated surface of the Moon, on the ground.
Host: What are some of the key contributions of the facility?
Jones: Well, the astronauts, the initial astronauts were trained there to land in that last 150 feet to the surface of the Moon, and that gave them confidence and training skills that they needed, so they would know what it was like to land on the Moon. So that’s a key element to me. They needed to know what it was going to be like landing on the Moon and how they could control their vehicle. That’s one.
Learning how to walk on the surface of the Moon was the other. Then if you go into more current times, we can discuss that as well, but I didn’t know if that’s where you wanted to go with this.
Host: I would like to hear some more about the current times and we’ll get to that. I do have a question about the Apollo astronauts. Did they seem to appreciate being able to use the structure to prepare for landing on the Moon?
Jones: When asked what landing on the Moon was like, Neil Armstrong said it was like Langley. They appreciated it because it really helped them to know how to land on the Moon, and how to jettison their vehicle and move it around, so they could land on the surface. So that was a big compliment for us from Neil saying it was like Langley, the training at Langley.
Host: Was there anything else from the Apollo astronauts that you recall?
Jones: Well, there was a lot of different fun stories at the time. They had a lot of fun in the facility because they were, I guess, cutting up and going on with each other, and when somebody would make a faux pas, of course it was all over the headsets and things like that. So, it was fun because it was a little safer than the actual thing they were going to be doing, and they were able to – some would enjoy it like an amusement park ride, I believe, a little bit, without worrying about flipping it over and hurting somebody. So, I think they enjoyed that aspect of it, and that was a fun time for them.
Host: That’s a neat insight. What are some of the reactions from people when they tour the facility?
Jones: They are amazed because they didn’t know. A lot of people don’t know that this large structure sits in Hampton, Virginia. You drive by it, and people drive by it every day and don’t know what it was used for originally or what it’s currently being used for. So, when people come on tours of the facility, they are just amazed by the fact that we have this right here, that the astronauts, the original astronauts came here and trained. Neil and Buzz and all the crew were here and actually did a lot of work in the facility. Then they are also amazed that it was also converted to do other activities, and it’s been used for crash testing as well as landing for current projects like Orion.
Host: I want to hear more about that. So, let’s delve into that. In the years since the Apollo Program, how has the facility been used?
Jones: Well, when Apollo ended, they decided that there was a lot of stuff going on in industry, and people were doing quite well and buying airplanes, and people who were not trained pilots from industry or from the military, and they saw an increase in the number of accidents in aviation, especially general aviation under 23 passengers. So, the NTSB, FAA, and NASA got together and said, “Okay. What’s going on? Why are we having these crashes?”
Obviously, the training of the people flying had something to do with it, but also people were dying in what were called survivable accidents. So, the facility was converted to a full-scale crash test facility. And from there, we also have gone back to doing landing for the different space programs as well. So, with the aircraft, the current FAA regulations were developed for crashworthiness using tests from the facility. In the current work for the space program, the Orion and Commercial Crew, we are helping them develop their landing systems, whether it’s into water or onto land.
Host: You mentioned Orion. Is there a plan to use the facility for testing of new landers for Moon and Mars missions?
Jones: The new Artemis program for going back to the Moon has first a set of unmanned landers, of which there is some work that we’ve been talking to the program offices about that are interested in providing the government-funded equipment that they may need to land these landers autonomously on the lunar surface. There are things like photogrammetric measurements and cameras and LIDAR that allows them to see through the dust and be able to land safely.
Then, for obvious reasons, I believe that with this asset you have that potential to be able to do perhaps a manned landing and training as well. You may, if you go back to doing where you have a piloted vehicle, definitely have it man-rated. If they decide to do autonomous landing, then you could also see that the facility could be used for that again. You would have to redo some structure and actually be able to add back a higher capacity winch system. All that was taken down from the Apollo days.
Host: Are there any takeaway lessons with a facility like this?
Jones: This facility gives you a lot of ways to use it, and there’s always a learning going on at the facility, whether it’s from the lunar days or from more recent times. It is amazing how many things we have learned over the years from doing testing at the facility.
One of the big ones for me was when they were looking at airbag landings, coming back to land on the surface rather than to water for Orion and for Commercial Crew. We had two competitors who had the airbags on the bottom and they did analysis, and they said, “Oh, yay, our testing is laying right on top of analysis,” at first.
Then as we got faster speeds and started dropping it at higher rates and with horizontal velocities, they’re going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Something’s not right. Our analysis is saying this and the test is saying that.” Basically, what they learned is their analysis had a way of saying, “Okay, we have airbags, and when those ports open it’s instantaneous,” and the airbags in reality, on the bottom of these vehicles, took ten milliseconds to open. In the process of that, the pressures in those bags increased quite a bit, especially at the higher rates and with horizontal velocities.
So those companies that were involved in that made the same mistake. They’re going, “Whoa. We didn’t catch that. We have this issue that there’s going to be a lag. Our model says it’s going to be instantly open and the test says no, it’s not.” So that’s the test of reality versus what a computer can do.
So those kinds of things are happening all the time, not to mention new ways of testing and new instrumentation, and new data systems that we can utilize in this facility and acquire data. We’re currently doing some stuff with bungee assist to get some velocities for some parachute extraction tests. There’s always new ways to use a facility. We have this big monkey bar set and you can do whatever you need with it to get the work done.
Host: Very fascinating. From a personal standpoint, what has it meant to you to be involved with this national historic landmark that contributed significantly to landing humans on the Moon?
Jones: It has been really a wonderful career. I came to Langley for a job interview 30-something years ago. The job that I was there for was nothing I was interested in. They took me on a drive-by of this facility, and they told me at the time they’re doing crash dynamics with human survivability, which is still – that still goes back to even Apollo days. Human survivability was part of that safety issue.
It just hit home with me. I had graduated and I thought for sure I was going to be working in wind tunnels. Instead, they offered me a job in this facility with structures, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Then as we go year after year and we do tours for hundreds of people, open houses and all this for thousands of people in my career that we have talked to, there’s always that sparkle that we have this link to Apollo. It’s just a wonderful feeling to see those little faces light up, and the big faces, too. The grown people get excited too when you start talking about how it was used and that it’s still being used, and it’s doing wonderful work to this day.
So, it’s a pleasure to be in a facility that has that historic significance, and it’s still contributing. It makes you very proud of being a member of the team that works in that facility. I was six years old when Apollo happened and, you know, wow. We were living in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember watching it on TV and it was just amazing.
It was such an amazing thing, an adventure that we did this. It’s amazing that we were able to do this, and what people can do and succeed at doing when motivated and inspired. That’s what I hope the new program does. I see the spark in people’s eyes now when we talk about the Moon and Mars, and landing on the Moon and people getting excited about it. It’s that same adrenaline rush, I think, that Apollo had tons of, which I hope we see more of in the future.
Host: You’ll find links to topics mentioned on the show today, and more about the Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration, at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with Lisa’s bio and a show transcript.
If you have suggestions for future interview topics, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL, and use the hashtag SmallStepsGiantLeaps.
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Thanks for listening.