Diving with dummies before anyone departs for deep-space exploration
Before a car can be sold in the United States, it undergoes a series of test collisions while occupied by crash test dummies. These dummies have become quite sophisticated since the 1930s, when tests were conducted using cadavers. The synthetic dummies in use today are available in varying body types while being stuffed full of sensors to provide feedback to engineers about how safe a vehicle may or may not be. With similar goals in mind, NASA is now using these dummies in early tests for the Orion spacecraft, a ship intended future astronauts’ deep-space missions.
The Orion spacecraft will be blasted into space atop the Space Launch System, slated to be the world’s most powerful rocket when it goes into service. The crew module will be able to hold two to six astronauts at a time, both for trips to Mars but also safe returns to Earth. The first test of the Orion capsule was in 2014 atop a Delta IV rocket, albeit without a crew. Considered a success, the capsule’s development is continuing, now with a focus on atmospheric re-entry and water landings’ effect on the crew. Before sending anything back into orbit, engineers are preparing for a series of controlled drops with two dummies and a 20-foot-deep pool, called the Hydro Impact Basin.
Looking at safety of splash-downs
Dropping an Orion capsule into a pool obviously isn’t a perfect match for returning from space, but the control over variables makes it valuable for testing. More simplistic capsules have been in dozens of splash tests already (starting at a cautious two-and-a-quarter foot altitude), and now a more accurate version of the spacecraft is being fitted with both a 220-pound male and 105-pound female dummy for a bit more realism. For the first three tests, these dummies won’t be in their spacesuits though, partially to establish a baseline of forces exerted by the impact in the water. After that, the dummies will be fitted into spacesuits for nine more tests. Each simulated landing will also look at variations in weather and the crew module’s orientation, allowing comparisons between a vertical landing in low waves or a lateral impact in higher surf.
With each drop into the pool, er, Impact Basin, sensors in the dummies will record just how rough a trip future astronauts will be in for down the line. In the mean time, other work is being done on Orion throughout the year, all to make these crewed-missions into deep space as safe possible before an actual human is ever at the controls.
Source: Test Dummies to Help Assess Crew Safety in Orion by Sasha Ellis, NASA News