NASA Uses Dummies in Its Brutal Crash Tests

NASA's Langley Research Center extensively tests its dummies to ensure that human astronauts and pilots remain safe.
Shelby Rogers

Crash dummies have it rough, but NASA's crash test dummies really get put through the wringer. These dummies have to test everything from next-gen aircraft to enduring water-impact tests of Orion astronaut crew capsules, NASA noted. 

While these crashes are quite epic to watch when a dummy is involved, these tests are all done to ensure that humans would never suffer the same fate. NASA's test dummies are packed full of sensor s that tell researchers exactly where impacts are heaviest in each crash. 

“Everything that you want to know about injury occurs anywhere from one-tenth to four-tenths of a second [during impact],” said Martin Annett, a structural impact dynamics engineer at the Langley Research Center. “We have to be able to capture a lot of data within that time frame.”

Annett noted that improvements in data collection and the sensors mean that more modern dummies can successfully gather information with much smaller sensors. The process has gotten easier, he said. 

"...You can now put a suite of sensors just in the back of the head and then the data will be stored on a laptop," Annett explained. "We can then take a look at that data, evaluate that against injury criteria, [and] compute different injury criteria.”

A video clip of a dummy getting battered up in plane fuselage impact, for example, led researchers to develop energy-absorbing seats that would better protect passengers in the event of that scenario. As long as there's the risk of something going wrong, NASA researchers say they'll continue to use crash test dummies to ensure that more elements go right.