Engineering for Dummies: How We Protect Real Humans by Testing Fake Ones


“Anthropomorphic test device” doesn’t sound like a term referring to humans, but these beings made from plastic, rubber, and steel share our dimensions, mimic our physiological responses and have greatly advanced the technology of human safety.

More commonly known as “crash test dummies,” these research workhorses have helped engineers discover the limits of human body tolerance to injury since the 1950s. While we’re used to seeing them in car collision research, dummies are also used to analyze supersonic vehicles and train ground troops to identify and combat enemy infantry formations.

While crash test dummies are put through physical challenges in these tests, it’s the scientists and engineers who take on the complex intellectual challenge of analyzing the effects these tests have on the human body. Check out how we test, splash and even open fire on dummies to analyze the effects on future passengers and make missions safer.



Orion Splash Test
Image courtesy of NASA

When it comes to deep space travel, thorough testing is critical to successful missions and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is no exception. Orion is NASA’s first spacecraft designed for long-duration, deep space exploration. It will transport humans to interplanetary destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the moon and eventually Mars, and return them safely back to Earth.

Mark Baldwin, the lead crew injury analyst for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, applies his extensive experience in biomechanical engineering to evaluate potential crew injury for the astronauts who will fly on board future Orion missions.

“I’ve worked on planes, trains and automobiles, but space flight is definitely a different kind of animal,” Baldwin said. 

Video courtesy of NASA

What makes the Orion mission unique is that unlike passengers in a car, crew members on board the spacecraft will be subjected to three different types of movement that can cause significant gravitational force on the human body. First, there are strong vibrations which can occur during liftoff and ascent. During re-entry and landing, there are both linear and rotational accelerations at play, but the most severe impact occurs upon splashdown.

After Orion journeys thousands of miles beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Baldwin works with NASA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia to determine the effect acceleration has on crew members through water-impact testing.

These tests, which are ongoing through August, help Baldwin and NASA analysts evaluate the different ways the spacecraft could land in the water after re-entry. They will conduct full-scale water impact tests under various velocities to simulate situations the spacecraft could encounter and how each of those responses would transfer to the crew inside.




Crash test dummies aren’t only used for airborne operations. Lockheed Martin is also preparing ground troops for the threats they may encounter by using modern training techniques and dummy technology.

“During their training, troops must respond to different scenarios by coordinating how they would call for fire, or how multiple vehicles and crews would communicate as they determine who is going to fire at which targets,” said Dave Cogdall, business development manager at Lockheed Martin Training and Logistics Solutions. “Dummy technologies like the Moving Infantry Target Carrier provide a realistic impression of a moving infantryman, and can even simulate an advancing or retreating infantryman on any terrain.”

Thanks to crash test dummies that show up to work every day and the engineers that work with them, products like Orion are safer and more prepared for their missions here on earth and beyond.