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Wreck Room

To help build a better rocket, NASA scientists double as a wrecking crew

Author MICHELLE BANGERT

HUNTSVILLE, ALA.

With their electric propulsion and plasma fuel systems, the rockets of today are a lot like the ones imagined in the sci-fi movies of yesteryear. There’s just one problem: They still weigh a ton (or 3,700 of them, to be exact). Lighter rockets would be cheaper and more efficient, but also might crumple under the stress of takeoff. To figure out how light rockets can be and still work, NASA built a test bay at the Marshall Space Flight Center — and hired a bunch of rambunctious rocket scientists — just to crush them. The most recent spacecraft smash took place last spring and cost the agency $5 million. Here’s how they did it.

1. It took 100 people about 18 months to set up the bay and create a faux rocket out of an aluminum alloy, and even then, NASA still had to get the 20-foot-tall can to the test, which required closing roads and lifting power lines. “It takes an army of people just to move this thing around,” says Mark Hilburger, a NASA senior research engineer.

2. As much as Hilburger might have wanted to hit the start button once everything was in place, he had to take the test slowly. “You don’t just load it up and let it rip,” he says. In six days of pretest preparation, engineers set up 16 video systems and installed 800 sensors on the rocket shell so they could keep tabs on it as it crumpled.

3. Finally, two giant rings held the rocket shell in place while a hydraulic mechanism crushed it from top to bottom. The shell handled more pressure than expected — it failed after about five hours. Next, the scientists will crush one that is 20 to 30 percent lighter, continuing until they reach the perfect balance of weight and strength.

ILLUSTRATION BY INFOMEN

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