NASA protects astronauts from sound that peels paint off the walls

The roar of a rocket launch can unleash staggeringly powerful sound waves. It’s why viewers gather kilometers away from a liftoff. And if you’re buckled in above those engines, ready to blast off to Mars, such sound waves could pose problems.

Luckily, engineers can test and soundproof a new spacecraft before it leaves the launch pad, with the help of a giant, speaker-walled facility in Ohio. At the NASA Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility, the U.S. space agency and private space companies can blast rocket parts with the raw noise of a simulated rocket launch.

It’s the most powerful acoustic testing site in the world, cranking out an ear-shattering 163 decibels through 36 nitrogen-powered horns. The speakers are bare metal, because the sound they produce would peel paint. A volume of nitrogen gas equivalent to an Olympic-size swimming pool blasts through the horns every minute.

Close-up of space capsule in acoustic testing chamber (Alcyon Technical Services JV, LLC)
NASA’s Orion capsule was tested to see if it could withstand the most powerful rocket booster ever designed. (Alcyon Technical Services JV, LLC)

The facility is part of NASA’s Plum Brook complex, which also houses rooms that simulate the vacuum of space, as well as the freezing cold, searing heat, jarring vibrations and blasts of electricity that rockets could experience during flight. Private company SpaceX has already used the facility to prove its Falcon 9 rocket fairing — the “nose cone” that protects spacecraft during launch.

You may have already seen the center up close: In Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, the facility serves as the headquarters of secret intelligence organization SHIELD.

The Orion space capsule, which NASA plans to use to eventually take the first humans to Mars, underwent the full gamut of abuse before its uncrewed flight in 2014. (NASA plans a first crewed flight to Mars in or around the year 2030.)