Big Tools for Space Exploration

Technicians at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center are using a titan-sized tool on a fast-paced project.

It’s a giant wrench that weighs 25 pounds and is 36 inches long, nearly a quarter of the length of the X-43A research aircraft that it supports. In fact, the wrench is so big that it doesn’t even fit in a workbench – that’s because it’s as big as a workbench! They just keep it on a table for storage.

The X-43A is a scramjet, or Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, meaning that the oxygen needed by the engine for fuel combustion is taken from the atmosphere passing through the engine, instead of from a tank onboard. Future scramjet vehicles might carry more payload without an oxygen tank onboard.

So, what do NASA’s strong-arm technicians use this colossal tool for? According to Mike Bondy, NASA’s hypersonic X-43A scramjet crew chief, you simply have to use the right tool for the right job. Mike and other technicians use the wrench to turn 3-inch diameter coupling nuts on what is called the clamshell, a fixture that holds the X-43A vehicle.

Image right: X-43A tool ace Art Cope displays the size of the massive wrench. NASA photo by Tony Landis.

The steel clamshell has an upper and a lower piece, and is used for everything from transporting the X-43 to everyday maintenance of the vehicle. This size wrench is also used in NASA Dryden’s Loads Lab, a special facility used to test aerospace vehicle structures.

The X-43A team’s incredible success in flying the world’s fastest free-flying airbreathing aircraft to a record speed of over Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound, on March 27, 2004, has left no time to bask in success.

Just ask Art Cope, an X-43A engineering technician. He’s been using the wrench lately to reconfigure the clamshell for various maintenance tasks in preparation of the next flight, currently planned for this September. The flight is slated to propel the final X-43A vehicle even faster than the previous one, to a speed of Mach 10.

Though speed targets in the project are important, the greatest success garnered by the team lies in the fact that on March 27 they proved what 40 years of research and theory had predicted – that scramjets, or supersonic combustion ramjets, work in the real world.

Image left: X-43A technician Art Cope using the mega wrench, which adds new emphasis to the phrase turn a wrench. The #3 X-43A research vehicle is resting on the pins that Cope is turning with the wrench. The blue fixture is the clamshell. NASA photo by Tony Landis.

These guys are turning one BIG wrench on one fast project!