It looked like a huge snowfall inside a NASA hangar, a massive space that is usually filled with research aircraft. But the white stuff falling from the ceiling was actually a foamy mix of water and environmentally friendly chemicals that expands to smother fires.
It's a new fire suppression system designed to protect some of the most valuable assets at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. -- its people, seven valuable flying laboratories and a significant building.
Technicians at NASA Langley have spent the last year and a half working to upgrade the fire control system in the hangar building, including installing additional sprinklers and new foam generators just for the 99,000 square foot hangar.
"The reason for the new system is to save the building and protect the lives of as many as 250 people," said John Hefner, facility coordinator. "This will improve fire suppression significantly. It's faster and better than we used to have in putting out fires."
To install the High Expansion Foam Fire Suppression System workers mounted 20 red canisters to the steel superstructure high above the hangar floor. The hangar is divided into four zones, five canisters per zone.
The canisters are foam generators. Water pumped to them is mixed with a chemical concentrate to make a sudsy spray. That spray expands into a blanket of foam with the help of fans that add air to increase the volume. "It's like a bubble bath," said Hefner.
Image left: A six-foot-thick carpet of fire-suppressing foam blankets the floor of Langley's 99,000 square foot hangar. Credit: NASA
But to make sure the bubble bath worked NASA had to do a complete test of the system, after first running water through it. So crews moved the airplanes outside and workers erected six-foot high plastic barriers on each side of the hangar floor to contain the foam in 75,000 square feet of space.
Then they turned on the spigot, literally. "The system was very efficient," said Hefner. "Within 20 seconds it produced six feet of foam."
But how does six feet of foam get cleaned up? Just like bubbles the foamy suds burst -- eventually. Within ten hours the environmentally safe foam became a white powdery residue, which NASA swept up and put into barrels, just to be doubly secure.
And while officials at NASA Langley are glad to know that the new fire suppression system works so well, they hope they never have to see a real life demonstration.