National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research CenterGlenn Research Center

Ballistics Lab

On Thursday June 23, 2011, the NASA Academy toured the Ballistic Impact Facility at Glenn Research Center. Matt Melis, the tour guide, stated that the Ballistic Impact Facility was built as a direct response to the Columbia tragedy in an effort to investigate the space shuttle disaster and NASA’s “Return to Flight” program aimed at improving the fidelity of the space shuttle design.

The facility has two main rooms. One room houses the large gas gun, while the other sports a smaller ballistics gun with a vacuum experiment facility and also contains much of the instrumentation required to acquire and analyze the data from the ballistics tests. There is a turbine engine in the first room that was utilizing lighter material, such as Kevlar and carbon fiber, for the shroud in an effort to minimize weight and meet aircraft turbine engine containment criteria. Interestingly enough, the new design being tested and optimized can have a high velocity blade loosen and become lodged far enough into the shroud as to not interfere with the rest of the turbine.

The large gas gun works by inserting layers of circular plastic diaphragms between the gas chamber and the gun barrel. When the design pressure is achieved inside the chamber, the diaphragms break, propelling a projectile placed in an open metal container the size of a paint bucket at speeds up to one thousand meters per second. The last few feet of the barrel poke into a separate airtight room with reinforced concrete walls where the test object rests on the target stand, a couple feet in front of the ballistics muzzle. During a test, the metal container races down the barrel where the edges of the can collide with the sabot arrester. The container is immediately stopped, permanently deforming the base of the can into a spherical form, while the projectile is launched at the design velocity into the target. Powerful lights and cameras that can capture up to two million frames per second enable the test to be analyzed. After each test, a huge vacuum pumps out the debris and dust floating in the air as a result of the experiment.

The second room in the facility has the small vacuum gun set up for an experiment to test the space shuttle flying into a flock of birds. They use gelatin for the primary experiments; however, the final tests will use actual birds to complete the findings and verify the analysis. Also, Melis mentioned repeatedly that the future of structures analysis lies in a stereoscopic video tracking technique, in which cameras capture the movement of a matrix of white dots painted on the surface of the test object. Computers are then utilized to track the deformation of the material and represent it in a three-dimensional environment.

After the tour of the facilities, the NASA Academy along with speaker Matt Melis retired in the conference room for refreshments and a Q &A session. Here, Melis introduced the artistic side of himself, and most of the questions were geared toward the development of the posters and films he has produced. The NASA Academy learned about the guidelines for the art that can be produced through NASA and the different types that were being produced. The meeting ended with a discussion of the last space shuttle launch and the film that he is currently helping produce about the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program.