WOW! That Sucks! A Visit to NASA’s Space Power Facility

The weight of the atmosphere at Coney Island is around 14.7 pounds per square inch, which comes in to about 105 Pascals or about 760 Torr.

A fairing separation test.

The pressure in deep space, a ways up, would be running right around zero Torr, not counting the odd atom that may wander by. “Number density” is more oft-referenced when counting particles in deep space: how many “things” are there per unit volume?

The edge of Lower Earth Orbit (LEO), where many sensing, communications and observation satellite fly is around 60 miles up (getting to the 50-mile-high club officially makes you an astronaut). At these altitudes, the atmospheric pressure is around 10-5 Torr. This delineation is referred to as the Kármán line, which is the the border between Mesosphere and the Thermosphere (the Space Shuttle used to occupy 100 to 600 miles of altitude).

A crane inside the chamber.


Somewhere between heaven and the deep blue sea, a few hundred miles up, is a region that humans can simulate by visiting NASA Plum Brook Space Power Facility, the “Home of the World’s Largest Vacuum Chamber.” But what a vacuum chamber this is.

The facility has been used for all kinds of simulation from faring separation tests to Mars parachute tests. You can also chill out in the Space Power Facility, dropping the temperature to a minus 320oF (about 100oF above absolute zero). If you need to shake the cold, 4 MW quartz heat lamp array can be lit.

A space power facility.

We got a visit to this lab in Sandusky, Ohio after dropping in on the Zero G Test Facility a while back Zero Geez. Viewing the facility is a neck-craning exercise. The facility rises to about 120 feet in height with a diameter of 100 feet. The massive structure is clad in aluminum, steel and six to eight feet of concrete. After the experiment/test is set up, an enormous “pocket door” slides into place.

Once the doors are shut and sealed, the fun begins.

A neck crane.

The facility has thirty-one pumps, 26 of them with 48” diameter tubes that can suck out the air fast enough to get the one fifth of one percent in about two hours (20 Torr). These babies pull upwards of 1,300,000 liters per second. The underside of the facility sports municipal-size pumps, plumbing cabling and structures. The deck of the chamber is supported by dozens of isolation mounts.

To pump down the Space Power Facility to simulate the edge of space only takes about 6 hours. So if you think you have a job that sucks, think again.


– Mike Violette
[email protected]





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