Historic Photos of NASA’s Cavernous Wind Tunnels (39 photos)

Throughout the 20th century, NASA (and its predecessor, NACA) made extensive use of wind tunnels to test and refine designs for airplanes, spacecraft, and many other vehicles and structures. Dozens of specialized tunnels were constructed over the years at Langley Research Center in Virginia and Ames Research Center in California, to test the effects of high windspeed, turbulence, icing, ionization, and much more. Some of these facilities were gigantic—the largest, still in operation, is the 80-foot by 120-foot tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center. In the 1990s, a surplus of government wind tunnels and advances in computer simulations led to a consolidation, and a number of older facilities were demolished. Gathered here, a collection of images of NASA’s amazing wind tunnels from the past century.



A technician prepares to unlatch the door built into the guide vanes of the 16-foot transonic wind tunnel at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in March of 2010. The tunnel, one of dozens of research facilities at Langley, was built in 1939 and operated until 2004, when it was retired as part of a national initiative to optimize government-owned wind tunnels. Operating "transonically" or across the speed of sound, the air in the test section traveled from about 150 to 1,000 miles per hour. The guide vanes, which formed an ellipse 58 feet high and 82 feet wide, cut across each cylindrical tube at a 45-degree angle. Similar sets of vanes at the three other corners of the wind tunnel turned the air uniformly as it rushed through the 1,000-foot race track-like enclosed tube. If guide vanes were omitted, the air would have piled up in dense masses along the outside curves, like water rounding a bend in a fast brook.
(Bill Taub / NASA)


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