Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum
Tucked away in the suburbs of Philadelphia rests an amazing piece of lost American history.It lies hidden away on the grounds of the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, Pennsylvania, at one time one of the most technological places in the World. During the time of the cold war this may have been one of the most difficult places to access. The surrounding property housed numerous laboratories focusing on the development of aircraft equipment, advanced navigation systems, aerospace equipment, and submarine detection. But perhaps it's most important work was training future pilots, and eventually astronauts.
In order to train for the strenuous conditions involved with operating a fighter jet, one must be accustomed to numerous changes in gravity forces being applied to the body. The best way to do this is to build a machine capable of producing these anomalies. In 1947 construction began on the largest human centrifuge ever built, and in 1950 operations began. Originally the centrifuge was meant to only train pilots, but by the middle of the 1950's things were quickly and quietly changing.
By the late 1950's America was engulfed in a cold war with Russia. Besides battling in an arms race, the two countries were neck and neck in a space race. At this time the legacy of the centrifuge would change forever.
During a time in the late 1959 a who's who of American citizens could be found at the massive machine. Allen Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and numerous others all took rides in the famous Mercury 7 gondola. Every astronaut who took part in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs trained right here.
"Sadistic", "dreaded"," diabolical", "torture chamber", "a gruesome merry-go-round", these are just a few ways John Glenn and others have described the centrifuge. Packing 4,000 horsepower and the capabilities of maneuvering your body in disorienting positions, the centrifuge certainly wasn't meant to be played with. While being used to train the astronauts, a few decided they wanted to truly test the magnitude of this vicious machine. In 1958 a Naval reserve officer rode in the gondola for nearly a minute at over 20 Gs. Another rode inside at an astounding 32 Gs for nearly half a minute. As the need for speed geared everyone's adrenaline it wasn't a feasible way into space. In the late 1950's two daring scientists loaded a La-z boy recliner into the gondola and proved that man could survive for more than 24 hours if kept at a steady 2 Gs. Their theory helped to be extremely helpful in being able to accomplish space exploration.
The centrifuge ceased using the Mercury 7 gondola in 1964, and had it placed in the Smithsonian museum. But the facility remained opened, and was a training grounds for many future pilots. In 1996 the base fell victim to closure, and operations were relocated to Maryland. All operations of the centrifuge ended shortly thereafter and the gondola was left to collect dust.
Today the behemoth spinning gondola is still resting in it's home in Warminster. Fortunately the doors are still open. Tours take place regularly at the Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum. The place is loaded with past artifacts from the early days of aerospace training. Most of the place looks similar to how it did when in operations. The control panels are nicely intact, and look strangely antiquated compared to today's technology. Of course the spinning gondola is still in place and you can even take a step inside, but don't worry they won't turn it on...even if you try to bribe them! But donations are greatly accepted.
Video look at the Johnsville Centrifuge