Virginia lab puts submarine parts to the test

Better to find problems before getting to ocean, scientists observe

April 05, 2002|By Michael Fabey | Michael Fabey,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MANASSAS, Va. - Allen M. Jones has a chamber of horrors here that would make Vincent Price cringe.

Jones' lab blasts its subjects with hammers the size of a truck cab, shoots them with electric charges and makes them withstand a day in the Sahara and a night in the Arctic - just to make sure they're fit for service in the country's nuclear submarines.

"We smash things here," said Jones, the manager of Lockheed Martin's mechanical development engineering, manufacturing engineering, environmental test laboratory and model shop.

The scientists and technicians do their best to destroy submarine combat and navigation computer systems for a very simple reason: It's better to find problems at their Lockheed Martin Undersea Systems lab than on a sub submerged in the middle of the ocean.

Heat, cold, explosions

So the lab simulates mine blasts, fiery heat, frigid cold and more twists and turns than a roller coaster to put the company's high-tech - but extremely sophisticated and sensitive equipment through the same kind of rigors as a submarine mission.

This type of testing is becoming more demanding and more important as submarines become even more technologically advanced. While there's been some advancement in the way Newport News and other companies build ships, the greater strides have come on the technological side.

And, as submarines take on bigger roles in espionage and other special operations, this kind of technology and the way it operates could prove to be key in how submarines survive as a military need.

Here, Lockheed has built a mine-shock testing machine that looks like a catapult, is the size of a Volkswagen bus and sits in a half million tons of concrete welded to I-beams as thick as a filing cabinet - all to test the new Virginia-class submarine combat system and make sure the ships and sailors will surface as many times as they dive.

The systems themselves are locked away in a metal box about the size and shape of a high school locker. Lockheed searches for computer components, bundles up the systems and packages them for submarine use and then puts them through the ringer.

`Shake-and-bake' shop

The lab runs the systems through simulated drills of all types - from hands-on operations to the smashing and electrifying tests of what the company calls its "shake-and-bake" shop. The Navy sends its people to train here on the equipment and how to fix it.

Even the lab itself is a bit sensitive - in some areas people have to wear special shoe harnesses that help absorb the electricity into the floor.

With technology changing so quickly, some of the lab's equipment is bound to run its course - for some submarine uses.

But Lockheed recently started testing computer racks for the Federal Aviation Administration. The lab is simulating earthquakes.

So far, the word is that the submarine equipment holds up better than the FAA's. Of course, the FAA needn't worry about enemy mines and the dangers of the deep ocean depths.

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