I've always been amazed by wind tunnels. Why? First of all, they're massive structures. Then there's the remarkable contribution they make to science and engineering—without wind tunnels, we likely wouldn't have developed the aerospace technology that put us on the moon. And finally, wind tunnels are often simply gorgeous, dramatic spaces. For proof, see the striking images below, which span almost a full century of wind tunnel testing.
1922. The Variable Density Tunnel at NASA's Langley Research Centre. It was the world's first variable density wind tunnel that allowed accurate testing with small-scale models.
The honeycombed, screened centre of this open-circuit air intake for Langley's first wind tunnel insured a steady, non-turbulent flow of air.
1934. Annual aircraft engineering conference group photo in the full-scale wind tunnel at NASA Langley Research Centre
Photo: Library of Congress
A technician prepares to unlatch the door built into the guide vanes of the 16-Foot Transonic Wind Tunnel at NASA Langley Research Centre. This tunnel, one of dozens of research facilities at Langley, was built in 1939.
Photo: Bill Taub/NASA
The wind tunnel at the NASA Glenn Research Centre, in 1944.
Photo: NASA/Glenn Research Centre
Inside the 16-foot supersonic wind tunnel of thPropulsion Wind Tunnel Facility, Arnold Engineering Development Centre, Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., 1960.
Photo: Phil Tarver/U.S. Air Force
Here's a rare photograph of a large Tu-144 scale model in a wind tunnel. The Soviet supersonic transport aircraft was designed by the Tupolev bureau, and the design was unveiled in 1962.
Photo: Utak és járművek - A Szovjetúnió közlekedése, 1975 (Roads and vehicles - Transportation in the USSR)
Model of supersonic transport in the full-scale wind tunnel at NASA Langley Research Centre, Hampton, Virginia.
Photo: Library of Congress
The smaller, 10x10 foot wind tunnel test section at NASA's Glenn Research Centre, in 1964.
Photo: Paul Riedel/NASA GRC
A Schlieren photograph of an F11F-1 Tiger at Mach 1.4 in the 1-foot by 3-foot wind tunnel at NASA Ames Research Centre, in February 1965.
SCIP-3 Model, Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel (1251), NASA Langley Research Centre, 1975.
A BMW R 100 RS motorcycle in the Pininfarina wind tunnel, 1976.
A Schleiren photo of a supersonic wind tunnel model of the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, with its wingtips set in the “up” position.
Photo: The Unwanted Blog
Laser doppler velocimeter test in the 8x6 foot wind tunnel at NASA's Glenn Research Centre, 1979.
Photo: NASA GRC
Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC) engineer observes the testing of a small Space Shuttle orbiter model at 14 Wind Tunnel in 1980.
The silhouette of a workman in the 8x6 foot wind tunnel at NASA's Glenn Research Centre, 1980.
Photo: NASA GRC
A model hypersonic craft undergoing tests in the 20 Inch Mach 6 Tunnel NASA Langley Research Centre, 1986.
Photo: James Schultz/NASA
The 16-foot fairing and turning vanes of the 16-foot transonic wind tunnel of Langley after rehabilitation, in 1990.
Langley's 16-foot transonic wind tunnel cone fairing.
On September 1, 1993, Skier Picabo Street trained at the USST Wind Tunnel testing facility in Buffalo, New York.
Photo: Mike Powell/Getty Images
F-16XL wind tunnel model in the Unitary and Continuous-Flow Hypersonic Tunnels Building 1251, NASA Langley Research Centre, April 29, 1994
November 4th, 1997: Graham Bell of England in position on the Jordan wind tunnel at Brackley, Northamptonshire.
Photo: Mike Cooper /Allsport/Getty Images
The BMW H2R ("Hydrogen Record Car") in a wind tunnel, in 2004.
Speed skier Tracie Max Sachs from USA in the wind tunnel of the Geneva Engineers School in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, March 8, 2007.
Photo: KEYSTONE/Martial Trezzini/AP
United States Olympic luge team member Mark Grimmette is positioned for a wind tunnel test in a new racing suit to be used for the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics, at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in February 2010, in San Diego.
Photo: Lenny Ignelzi/AP
The world's largest automotive wind tunnel at the General Motors Aerodynamics Laboratory August 4, 2010 in Warren, Michigan. The tunnel features a 43-foot diameter fan.
Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Schlieren testing of the 70-tonne configuration of the SLS rocket, designed to carry the Orion spacecraft, in the Trisonic Wind Tunnel at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre.
The largest parachute ever built to fly on an extraterrestrial mission — for NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars — inside the world's largest wind tunnel, at NASA Ames Research Centre, 2009.