NASA crashed a helicopter -- on purpose

Last Updated Aug 29, 2013 3:31 PM EDT

On Wednesday afternoon, NASA engineers crashed a helicopter -- with more than 35,000 viewers watching live on the NASA website. The planned crash took place at NASA's Landing and Impact Research Facility.

Loaded with 13 test dummies, the former Marine helicopter was lifted about 30 feet into the air, swung like a pendulum and slammed into a dirt field, crashing at about 30 miles per hour. The speed was chosen to mimic a real-world, survivable impact, NASA said.

The former Marine helicopter was crash-tested at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.
NASA Langley / David C. Bowman

The exterior of the 45-foot chopper didn't exactly resemble a Marine chopper -- it was painted white with black polka dots. Each polka dot represented a data point, which cameras monitored from the ground. The cameras snapped more than 500 images per second.

Prior to the test, researchers said it would produce more than 350 channels of data that will help them improve aircraft safety. On Wednesday, they were closely monitoring the seatbelts and other safety devices on board. The thousands of images will also allow them to digitally recreate the crash in order to further study how the chopper breaks apart.

The dummies were positioned every which way, including a dummy meant to represent a person on a medical stretcher. Others sat facing forwards, backwards and sideways.

About 40 cameras mounted inside and on the exterior of the chopper monitored the dummies' movements, to see how people might move at all stages of a crash. One of the cameras was an Xbox Kinect, designed to monitor facial expressions and voices.

Some viewers hoping to see the crash were left disappointed.

"Slow stream, one frame its hanging next frame its on the ground. glad I didn't buy the popcorn and soda,"[sic] Facebook user Jason Maggard commented on the live stream website.

"Horrible video stream... The packet loss was so bad that when the countdown hit zero, the next frame showed her sitting on the ground...Nooooo! I waited 20 minutes for this?" griped Jason McLemore.

Regardless of how well the crash showed on the live stream it was a success at the LaRC facility. Researchers will now begin the process of analyzing the more than 350 data points and applying it to future aircraft safety measures.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.