Acoustic Testing of Spacecraft, Todd Neff, and “From Jars to the Stars”

Last week I saw a story in the Denver Post about acoustic testing of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Canyon facility.  The purpose of acoustic testing is to see if a spacecraft can survive the vibrations that occur during takeoff by blasting it with 150 decibels of sound for an extended period of time.

The story in the Post immediately brought to mind the acoustic testing for the Deep Impact spacecraft described in Todd Neff’s 2010 book about Ball Aerospace, From Jars to the Stars: How Ball Came to Build a Comet-Hunting Machine. Deep Impact was built at Ball and succeeded in hitting a comet with a probe and filming the results in 2005. It was originally scheduled to have acoustic testing at the Lockheed Martin facility, but instead Ball hired a company called Maryland Sound that specializes in audio systems for large events and concerts.   Maryland Sound has an interesting sideline where they use their giant concert speakers to test spacecraft.

The Maryland Sound technicians set up their 10-foot high speakers just a few feet from the spacecraft. The technicians “. . . had long hair and wore Black Sabbath and Harley Davidson T-shirts.  Genuine roadies had set up shop in a place of higher engineering.  At one point, the sound of a solemn bell reverberated from the test area, followed by a heavy guitar riff.  The crew was testing the audio system with AC/DCs Hells Bells.”  Ball had to scramble to get Deep Impact ready for testing before the Maryland Sound speakers had to leave for the Hall and Oates Rock N Soul Revue Tour.

From Jars to the Stars is an interesting and entertaining book for anyone interested in space, technology, or Colorado history.  The first third tells the improbable story about how a jar company got into the aerospace business.  Two-thirds of the book is about the building of the Deep Impact spacecraft at Ball.  The author has given talks about the research for his book at many aerospace venues including NASA.  In April DASFA was privileged to hear Todd Neff give a hugely entertaining and memorable presentation at our regular meeting at the Broadway Book Mall.

Spacecraft testing can look like the guys in Mythbusters trying to break stuff, like in this clip of splash testing for the Orion MPCV.