The colossal wind tunnels at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, have been used for decades not only to test the aero-dynamism of planes, but also to subject submarines to simulations of turbulence and drag in aquatic environments.
Seen in these archival photographs, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress, the wind tunnels — Langley was home to more than 10 — relied on a truly massive system of fans and ventilation ducts, powered by (in one case, seen below) 8-foot rotary blades that could whip up artificial weather in a matter of seconds.
The photos collected here, all taken from publicly available archives but cropped and touched up for Gizmodo, span decades in the life of the Langley wind tunnels, from the first plane tested there, in 1931, to exterior shots of the facilities from the mid-1990s.
As mentioned above, the tests undertaken included subjecting an Albacore submarine to wind tests, with atmospheric turbulence and full-scale, storm-grade simulated weather standing in for ocean drag. One environment simply replaced another in this strange theatre of the elements: a gargantuan chamber in which engineer-sorcerers unleashed imitation storms against model objects.
Seen from outside, the facilities were like giant iron lungs: a huge nest of pressurised rings in which surrogate weather could be cultivated. In a sense, they held their own compressed version of the sky.
Inside, on the other hand, it is all film noir and chiaroscuro: long tunnels and claustrophobic scenes of one-point perspective disappear into the distance with miniature humans standing in for signs of scale.
They are like out-takes from German expressionist cinema or a classic film by Orson Welles: pathetically out-scaled humans, stranded amidst huge mechanical environments, scifi prisons they seem to barely understand.
The existing architectural documentation gives away little of the extraordinary spatial quality that would ultimately result; they are complicated diagrams, sure, and they are fascinating to look at, but they are hardly memorable, compared to the photographs, and they conjure up little of the extraordinary weirdness of the final structure.
A few more photos can be found on the Library of Congress website — miraculously, still online even during the government shutdown — including other wind tunnels run by NASA at the Langley location (or just do a search for "wind tunnel").
Before you click over to see more, here are a few more exterior views of the entire Langley site, including one shot straight and center up an interior corridor so scale-less it is like a Modernist cathedral to air, and one or two glimpses of a wind tunnel under construction.
Thanks to Nick Stango for his help with images!