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Final Years

NASA’s use of the SPC diminished in the 1970s, and a proposed restoration of the tunnel in the 1980s did not come to fruition. After years of under-use, the center demolished the facility in 2009.

Overview

NASA budget decreases in the final years of the Apollo Program caused dramatic reductions in personnel and research programs at the Lewis Research Center during the 1970s. During this period the Space Power Chambers’ (SPC’s) capabilities were superseded by Lewis’ new Space Power Facility (SPF) at Plum Brook Station. While use of the SPC test chambers ground to a halt, the facility’s shop area was converted into an antenna test facility.

In the early 1980s, NASA considered restoring the facility to its wind tunnel configuration to address new areas of icing research. After several years of engineering analysis, Congress cancelled the effort. The facility’s tunnel and test chambers remained idle for the next 20 years. In the 2000s, NASA decided to remove many of its under-utilized structures. As a result, the center demolished the SPC in 2009.

Phasing Out the SPC

In 1975, structural tests of the Centaur equipment module for a series of High Energy Astrophysical Observatories missions became the last runs in SPC No. 2. Use of the SPC No. 1 chamber ceased in 1967. The SPC had served its purpose during the battle to get Centaur operational in the early 1960s and for the tricky shroud modifications for the larger payloads of the late 1960s. The SPF at Plum Brook Station, the world’s largest vacuum chamber, was better suited to handle the separation tests for the larger shrouds for newer launch vehicles.

In 1976, the center unsuccessfully proposed funding a study on the feasibility of restoring the facility to its wind tunnel configuration for VSTOL testing. Management decided to utilize the SPC’s shop area to support Lewis’ Electric Vehicle Project. The project examined technologies for electric cars and tested every commercially available electric car. The SPC shop provided an area to store and work on these vehicles. The program produced a nickel-zinc battery that outperformed traditional automobile batteries.

The Shop and Office Building’s rooms were used by test installation technicians and a sundry of travel, training, security, and technology transfer personnel in the 1970s, before being taken over by Educational Services in the 1980s. In 1970, Lewis transformed a section of the Exhauster Building into the Aerospace Information Display Center, which displayed NASA models, hardware, and exhibits for visitors. The exhauster equipment had been shipped to Marshall. In 1975, the space was expanded and renamed the Visitor Information Center. This included a large lobby and assembly room.

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Microwave Systems Laboratory

In 1982, Lewis converted various areas in the SPC’s Shop and Office Building into a facility to test large antennas for the Applied Radio Frequency Branch of the Communications Division. Eventually, this area, the Microwave Systems Laboratory, would incorporate four antenna ranges.

The largest range, the Planar Near-Field Facility was created in the high-bay. The bay’s narrow space and 40-foot high walls provided an excellent location to study these large antennas. The walls were covered with row after row of anechoic foam pyramids that absorbed any escaping microwave rays. The ability to study these large antennas from just a few thousandths of an inch away allowed the researchers to analyze the antenna beam’s behavior when connecting to orbiting communications satellites. The only other alternative for this testing would require miles of distance between the antenna and probe. The Planar Near-Field Facility tested sophisticated, higher frequency space communications antennas, including systems for the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS).

The former SPC No. 1 control room underneath the tunnel’s test section was converted into the Far-Field Facility. Researchers used this range to study small prototype antennas such as phased arrays. In early 1991, the center expanded the building’s high-bay area by 2,400 square feet to accommodate two new ranges. The Compact Range Facility conducts antenna and scattering measurements, and the Cylindrical Near-Field Facility tests small prototype antennas.

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Tunnel Rehabilitation Study

By the early 1980s, Lewis seemed to have weathered the budgetary storm. There was renewed interest in restoring the Altitude Wind Tunnel (AWT) for icing and VSTOL studies. Lewis hired Sverdrup Corporation to explore the feasibility and costs for converting the SPC back into a wind tunnel. The resulting study concluded that the facility’s existing infrastructure was robust enough to support a new upgraded tunnel. The center established an AWT Project Office to develop the engineering plans for the proposed tunnel rehabilitation. Since the tunnel’s internal elements had been removed during the creation of the SPC, the facility would need a new test section, heat exchanger, two-stage fan system, exhaust scoop, and turning vanes.

Despite a strong case made by the Project Office, the Congressional Advisory Committee on Aeronautics Assessment cancelled the rehabilitation study in March 1985. It had become evident that the actual rehabilitation of the tunnel would exceed the proposed $160 million. The committee also questioned the ability of the facility to attain the desired capabilities and suggested that existing wind tunnels could meet the research needs. By this time, the AWT Project had consumed a substantial amount of personnel and financial resources.

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NASA’s Downsizing

The Microwave Systems Laboratory continued to operate in the shop area, and Educational Services occupied the office space, but the tunnel and test chambers sat idle throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Employees utilized the interior of SPC No. 2 to store equipment and props for center social clubs. The facility maintenance costs were high and difficult to justify for an unused structure. The center received a cost estimate excess of $4 million to perform minor exterior repairs and repaint of the tunnel shell.

In 2003, for the first time in its history, NASA Headquarters allocated funds for the demolition of unused facilities and asked its centers to submit lists for consideration. Glenn proposed the removal of nine buildings, including the SPC. The facility had been out of service for more than 30 years. Although the SPC was unique based on its sheer size alone, there had been no significant research work done in the tunnel circuit since the mid-1970s. The plan called for the elimination of the actual tunnel and infrastructure, but would leave the Shop and Office, Refrigeration, and Visitors Information Center (former Exhauster Building) intact. NASA Headquarters has concurred with Glenn’s decision and advocated the proposed demolition.

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Demolition and Preservation

The National Historic Preservation Act mandates that federal agencies consult with State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) prior to the demolition or significant modification of historic structures. The agency and SHPO must agree on an appropriate level of documentation to mitigate the loss of the structure. Glenn notified the Ohio SHPO of the SPC demolition and reached an agreement on the documentation in May 2007. The Glenn History Office gathered records, images, films, and oral histories regarding the facility and its significance. Information from these materials were distributed to the public through a number of publications including a book, documentary video, and this website. Glenn has performed this type of work for several of its former facilities.

In preparation for the demolition process, Glenn created a requirements document in September 2004 and a Statement of Work in 2005. The center obtained design services to create the demolition plans. Glenn then solicited bids to perform the work were solicited and awarded the contract to Pinnacle Construction in 2007. The demolition began in the fall of 2008 with asbestos and lead paint remediation. Crews began cutting away sections of the outer shell and removing the insulation in December 2007. They then used torches to segment and remove the inner shell. The demolition work was largely completed in May 2009. Contractors then removed the drive motor and generators from the Exhauster Building in June.

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