15 Photographs of the Superstructures That Put Us in Space

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

“It is easy to invent a flying machine,” said the German aviation engineer Otto Lilienthalmore, in the mid 19th century, “[and] difficult to build one; to make it fly is everything.” The challenge of air (and later, space) travel began not with building aircraft, but with building a realistic simulation machine in which to test those aircraft.

The same went for NASA, in its earliest incarnations. When I visited a few years ago, the massive warehouses and test sites had mostly been turned into museums. But at one time, those superstructures held the key to putting man into orbit. Massive, yawning wind tunnels, huge scaffolding towers, and million-tonne excavation sites were the first concrete (har har) evidence of progress towards space. Sure, the rockets and shuttles stole the show—but there’s a whole bevy of remarkable construction achievements that went along with building them.

Earlier this week, Maria Popova pointed us towards NASA’s public domain archive, where dozens of dramatic images of some of the administration’s first buildings are archived. It’s easy to see how these cinematic spaces must’ve piqued the eye of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick; some of them could be stills from a German Expressionist film, in which huge sculptural walls dwarf the character standing below. They’re historic images, but they’re also incredibly beautiful photographs—check out some of the best below, or head over the archive to see the entire collection. [NASA on the Commons]

1950: This photo shows the acoustic housing of the original Supersonic Wind Tunnel. The housing was added because of complaints from neighbours about the noise—so NASA engineers had to build on a noise-dampening section.

1927: At Langley, this Propeller Research Tunnel was the testing site for the first full-scale airplane, the Sperry M-1 Messenger. What we're seeing here is the "exit cone," where Elton W. Miller, chief of aerodynamics, is standing.

1964: This huge crater-like excavation site was dug to create a foundation for the A-2 test stand, which was built to test and flight-certify the booster system for the Apollo mission.

1960-64: Here's a test stand under construction—actually, it's a test stand being completely remodeled, since the early stands weren't large enough to accomodate the huge stages of Saturn V. It had to hold down the 3,500,000-kilo thrust produced by 5 F-1 engines, so the stand used hundreds of tonnes of steel and 6,000,000 kilos of cement—the foundation alone reached 40 feet below the earth. the S-IC static test stand was designed and constructed with the strength of hundreds of tonnes of steel and 6,000,000 kilos of cement, planted down to bedrock 12 metres below ground level.

1931-34: Hangar One, at the Naval Air Station in Sunnyvale, was one of the largest buildings of its kind. It was built to house the Navy dirigible (!), USS Macon. The hangar could house up to ten football fields, and has unique doors that "roll back" like an orange peel. After the Macon crashed, it became a training facility.

Another construction shot of the massive Hangar One.

1943: A view of the entrance cone to Ames' 12x24m Wind tunnel, with a blimp in the background.

1942: This dramatic view is looking into the cooling tower of the 16ft High Speed Wind Tunnel.

1948: After World War II, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, pushed the wartime engineering boom forward at the Ames Aeronautical Lab, in Moffet Field, California. For example, this 5-metre High Speed Wind Tunnel, where new ideas about aerospace engineering were hatched in the late 1940s.

1956: A 7.5 metre diameter swinging valve at various stages of opening and closing in the 3m x 3m Supersonic Wind Tunnel.

1962: A model of the Lockheed C-141 model hangs in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel, he world's first aeroelastic testing tunnel—which required a tunnel that could simulate gusts. NASA explains that "by the late 1940s, with the advent of relatively thin, flexible aircraft wings, the need was recognised for testing dynamically and elastically scaled models of aircraft. In 1954, NACA began converting the Langley 19-foot Pressure Tunnel for dynamic testing of aircraft structures. The old circular test section was reduced to 5 x 5 metres, and slotted walls were added for transonic operation. A model support system was devised that freed the model to pitch and plunge as the wings started oscillating in response to the fluctuating airstream."

1947: Here, we're looking "down the throat" of the world's largest tunnel, the 12 x 24 metre wind tunnel at Ames. At top speed, six 12-foot-wide fans would drive air at 65 kilometres per hour. That model at the top looks small—but actually, it's almost 15 metres long. It's mounted on stilts because it's undergoing drag tests; NACA readily supplied that data to American aircraft engineers.

1957: Engineers inside of the 10x10 Supersonic Wind Tunnel check on a model of a supersonic aircraft.

1950: Remember the sharp corners of the wind tunnel above? It was a challenge to get the air to flow smoothly through the corners, so engineers designed these weather-vane-like slats (seen here at the Pressure Wind Tunnel at Langley), which forced the air to turn corners more smoothly. Without the vanes, turbulent eddies would've skewed the test data.