A piece of Apollo history faces demolition


NASA plans to dismantle historic lunar gantry crane at Langley Research Center in Virginia

Neil Armstrong trained to land the Eagle there. NASA practiced splashing down its Orion capsules there just last year, ahead of the planned Artemis missions. Now, NASA plans to demolish its nearly 60-year-old gantry crane at a date to be decided, citing “annual maintenance costs and pending corrosion repair.” 

Joel Carney, the assistant administrator at NASA headquarters in charge of NASA’s Office of Strategic Infrastructure, informed staff at Langley Research Center about the decision last week. The gantry crane opened for business at Langley in 1963 as the centerpiece of the Lunar Landing Research Facility. It is an imposing structure as high as a 22-story building and as long as a soccer field from which hardware can be slung on cables for testing.

Recent surveys of NASA infrastructure identified the gantry as “underutilized property (based on future projections),” the agency told me by email. “NASA has a limited budget and as a result cannot retain all of our current capabilities. In order to be accountable to the taxpayers, we must, and do, prioritize infrastructure investments and maintenance in alignment with NASA mission needs,” the statement said.

After his return, Armstrong was asked what it was like to touch down on the lunar surface in the Lunar Module Eagle.  It was “like Langley,” he famously said of the gantry crafted to cancel all but one-sixth of Earth’s gravity for his training, according to NASA.

The gantry’s crane can be moved horizontally in two directions along its 121-meter length, and also vertically, to replicate the motion of a falling object. 

The decision to demolish it was unanimous among “leadership from all Centers and technical missions” as part of an agency Strategic Infrastructure Board meeting, NASA said.

If the gantry’s capabilities are needed in the future for tests, NASA plans to look within and outside the agency for a suitable facility.

NASA did not answer questions about how the demolition would occur, whether it would be done be an outside contractor, or whether portions of the gantry may be preserved.

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Human Spaceflight
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong below the gantry crane in February 1969. During tests, cables supported five-sixths of the model lander's weight to mimic lunar gravity, helping Armstrong practice his July touchdown on the moon with Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA
Engineers in 2013 hoisted the Orion Test Capsule and dropped it in the water tank underneath the gantry crane to simulate how the capsules would splash down after returning from lunar orbit. Credit: David Bowman/NASA

A piece of Apollo history faces demolition