LARC, Hampton, Virginia

NASA's Langley Research Center is a working facility, and not a museum, but it hosts some of the United States' oldest aerospace history. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the forerunner of NASA, made its home here from 1915 to 1958. Here is where folks were already inventing ways to fullfill the dream of going to the Moon well before President Kennedy's famous goal. The people who work in these non-descript offices and hangers are still solving some of the toughest problems in air and space travel: better wings, better propulsion, better tracking, better data handling.

The large hanger (above left) was home to Gemini and Apollo era docking training, and is currently home to several modern research aircraft, shown: the Boeing 757 testbed, the B-220 Beech King Air, the Cessna Citation, and the ubiquitous Northrop T-38 trainer and "astronaut taxi."

Sidewalk to the Stars

The photo on the right doesn't look like much does it? A sidewalk, a lawn, and a brick building or two. This average-looking office block was the headquarters of the original Space Task Group, and the Project Mercury team, before they moved to Houston. Some of the most famous men in spaceflight history trod this walkway to their offices: astronauts Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom; NASA leader Chris Kraft; spacecraft designer Max Faget... Just a few working stiffs who were instrumental in winning the race to the Moon.

 

The LLRF: What is That Thing Over There ?

Would you believe Neil Armstrong used to hang from it? Would you believe 22 astronauts used that thing to practice landing on the Moon? The Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF) is a highly visible part of the landscape near the towns of Hampton and Poqouson, Virginia. The large orange and white gantry structure spans 400 x 230 ft (122 x 70 m). The facility was built in 1965, at a cost of U.S. $ 3.5 Million. The framework structure offset 5/6 of Earth's gravity, and with the Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS) suspended below, the astronauts fired the rockets for final descent practice. The mock-up Moonscape under the gantry has been replaced by plain concrete, but it is easy to imagine the Moon bug swinging away, engines hissing, slowly hovering down toward the craters below.

Enshrined:

The LLRF will remain standing for a long, long time, because it has been designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark. In 1985, someone decided that so rare and unusual a place should not suffer the fate of many other historic space locales - such as some of the adandoned launch pads at Cape Canaveral. The facility is still in use for aircraft crash/impact safety research, so it will remain productive as well as enshrined for history.

Perhaps even more impressive to me as a space geek - when I lived in York County, Virginia, I could see the winking white aircraft warning lights atop this impressive tower, from my own backyard.

 

Where's the Bug?

Today the actual Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS) no longer swings from the rafters. A group of industrious students fully restored the craft, and it is on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center, which is the visitor center for NASA Langley. The 12,000 pound (5500 kg) machine looks for all the world like a Lunar Module descent stage with a phone booth on top - but the door to that phone booth shows the stenciled names of: Armstrong, Conrad, Lovell, Shepard, and Cernan, among a few others!