Life-Saving Dampers Secure Buildings, Bridges—and a Hall of Fame Induction

The Space Foundation has inducted into its Space Technology Hall of Fame a NASA spinoff that protects buildings and other structures throughout the world from earthquakes, saving untold lives.

Space Technology Hall of Fame induction
The Space Technology Hall of Fame induction ceremony honoring Taylor Devices. From left to right: Kevin Cook, vice president, marketing and communications, Space Foundation; Daniel Lockney, NASA Technology Transfer Program executive; Doug Taylor, chief executive officer of Taylor Devices; Ted Mecum, technology manager, Goddard Space Flight Center Technology Transfer Office; Enidia Santiago-Arce, technology manager, Goddard Space Flight Center Technology Transfer Office; Terry Taylor, Marshall Space Flight Center Technology Transfer Office chief.

Each year, the foundation’s hall of fame ceremony recognizes ground-breaking technologies that have their origins in space missions and research. It honors the scientists, researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators responsible for the creation and widespread use of the technologies, while also publicizing their significant societal benefits as a return on the public’s investment in space exploration.

Dozens of NASA spinoff technologies have been inducted into the hall of fame since its establishment in 1988. Among them are life-saving devices such as personal locator emergency beacons and advanced medical imaging devices. Others, such as truck aerodynamic enhancements and an active pixel sensor now found in most digital cameras, are ubiquitous in American society and represent hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue or saved costs for businesses.

Taylor Devices Inc., based in North Tonawanda, New York, was recognized during the 2015 ceremony at the Space Foundation’s 31st Space Symposium, for a technology whose NASA connection dates back to the agency’s earliest manned space missions, where one of the logistical challenges was protecting spacecraft during the always-tumultuous launch sequence.

Sketch of Apollo launch pad
An illustration of the fuel- and electricity-carrying umbilicals that extended from the gantry to the Apollo spacecraft. In the 1960s Taylor Devices developed shock absorbers to help safely dislodge the umbilicals from the spacecraft during launches.

In the early 1960s, NASA was preparing the Saturn V rocket to launch the first human mission to the moon. One priority was making sure the umbilicals—bundles of fuel- and electricity-carrying cords and tubes connected to different parts of the vehicle—were removed from the rocket quickly but safely during launch.

The umbilicals were held in place by pyro fasteners, which were set to break apart at launch. At that point, a built-in spring would pull the arm holding the cords back into a cradle near the gantry. And it did so with tremendous force—enough to break the swing arm itself from overexertion, absent mitigating factors.

The challenge for NASA, then, was to control this sudden burst of energy, which is where shock isolation systems come into play. Also known as dampers, these piston-based devices control spring and suspension movement by using what is essentially an oil pump. Inside, hydraulic fluids are forced by the piston through a series of orifices of different sizes, designed to slow the liquid’s movement and provide steady resistance. All the kinetic energy from outside forces is diverted into the fluid by conversion into heat, which eventually dissipates into the air.

Founded in 1955, Taylor Devices, which had developed dampers for the Navy’s jet fighter programs, stepped up to the plate and delivered dampers to Marshall Space Flight Center that were capable of controlling the unwieldy umbilicals. The collaborationmarked the beginning of a long engagement between the company and NASA.

Space Shuttle launch pad
Taylor Devices developed fluidics-based shock absorbers, derived from NASA funding for advancing computer technology, that safely removed the shuttle’s umbilicals during launch. Depending on their positions, the shock absorbers ranged from two to eight feet long and five to eight inches in diameter.

Following the Apollo Program, Taylor Devices worked on a new kind of shock absorber that NASA was investigating—not for rockets, but for computers. At the time, scientists were experimenting with computers designed to run on transistors rather than vacuum tubes; however, the initial transistor prototypes were found to be too expensive, complex, and cumbersome for practical use. Marshall funded Honeywell to investigate the use of oil-based hydraulics to run a high-speed analog computer instead, and Taylor Devices was hired as a sub-contractor to work on some of its engineering elements.

The company’s research in the science of fluidics—using pressures and flows of liquids in specially shaped channels to control logic systems and mechanical devices—enabled it not only to aid in building a hydraulics-based computer but also to develop its successful line of innovative fluidic dampers. In contrast to conventional dampers, such as those utilized for Apollo launches, the new fluidic dampers were capable of compressing specialized liquids at breakneck speeds—well into the transonic and supersonic velocity ranges. The higher thresholds allowed Taylor to engineer smaller dampers that could handle far higher stress loads.

When Taylor Devices’ CEO Doug Taylor later heard that NASA was investigating shock-absorber technologies for its upcoming Space Shuttle Program, he reached out to the space agency to show them his company’s advances in the field. “NASA loved it,” he recalls, and sure enough, the company worked extensively with Kennedy Space Center throughout the shuttle era, receiving contracts to provide fluidic dampers that were used on the launch pad right through the end of the program in 2011.

Since the 1990s, Taylor Devices has been using the same fluidic-damper technology for its commercial seismic dampers, used to stabilize buildings and other structures in the event of an earthquake. More than 550 buildings and bridges are now protected by these devices, many of them located in the world’s most seismically active areas, such as San Francisco, Tokyo, and Taiwan, among others. “Every Space Foundation Space Technology Hall of Fame inductee is remarkable in its own right,” says Kevin Cook, vice president of marketing and communications at the Space Foundation, “but few display benefits that are as astonishingly apparent as Taylor dampening systems.”

Shock absorbers on bridge
When first opened to the public, London’s Millennium Bridge was unexpectedly prone to resonances, and the city was forced to keep it closed until Taylor Devices was able to solve the problem with its shock absorbers. Shown here are 2 of the 37 fluidic dampers the company installed on the structure.
Image courtesy of Dave Farrance, CC BY-SA 3.0

A highly visible opportunity for the company came in June of 2000, when London’s Millennium Bridge opened to great fanfare—only to be shut down again two days later, after pedestrians on a charity walk had caused it to sway rather unexpectedly. The bridge would stay closed for more than two years, and ultimately it was NASA-derived technology that stabilized it: Taylor Devices was called in by the city and, after extensive analysis, retrofitted the bridge with 37 of its fluidic dampers as well as 50 tuned mass oscillators (another kind of passive shock absorber). The fluidic damper model used in the project was one the company had originally developed for a specific shuttle mission.

To this day, many Londoners refer to the landmark as “the wobbly bridge,” even though you won’t feel it move at all underfoot. “The bridge is largely aluminum, but with the dampers it feels like concrete,” says Taylor. “I've had several structural engineers and architects who, having walked it themselves, ordered dampers for their own buildings and bridges.”

The company has also continued with occasional NASA work, most recently as a subcontractor for a project at Goddard Space Flight Center, providing small shock absorbers to protect sensitive electronic equipment during launches to, and installation aboard, the International Space Station.

To highlight his company’s connection to space, Taylor likes to brag to potential clients that his products are currently orbiting Earth—and to that boast he can now add the honor of the company’s induction into Space Technology Hall of Fame. But the track record of Taylor Devices’ dampers in protecting buildings on the ground remains his real selling point.

“Not a single building outfitted with our dampers has fallen or had even minor damage during a quake,” he says, “and because of that, a substantial number of human lives have been saved.”