Watch NASA lob crash-test dummies through the air to see what happens to our bodies during plane crashes

Ever wondered if your body would break, shatter or bend if a plane you were travelling in crashed to the ground? It’s a morbid thought, but one that could revolutionise the future of both commercial air travel and our planned journeys into deepest, darkest space – and NASA is hunting for the answers.

To showcase the various ways humans could be destroyed during air and space travel, NASA’s Langley Research Center has published a video showing what happens to crash-test dummies being, well, crash-tested. By which we mean being subjected to purposefully engineered aviation ‘accidents’, in everything from airplanes to space capsules. This isn’t just mindless hijinks – the experiments are designed with improving aircraft and spacecraft safety in mind, with the end-game of reducing the potential for human injury.


The space agency released footage of the lifelike dummies – think nude-coloured ‘skin’, painstaking proportions and NASA uniforms – being dropped from a height in a cylindrical tube resembling a cross-section of a commercial aircraft, as well as footage of an ‘actual’ (read: carefully contrived) plane crash.

The YouTube video in question gives us mere mortals the chance to watch with horror – or alacrity, depending on your empathy levels – as the human-sized dolls, strapped into the seats of various aircraft and spacecraft, slump lifelessly to the floor upon impact.

The principal point of the endeavour, however, is for scientists to discern whether bodies break or bend under different crash conditions – a useful, if morbid, experiment. “We have to use crash-test dummies to evaluate the likelihood of injury,” explains Martin Annett, a Structural Impact Dynamics Engineer for the space agency. “Most of the time, when we’re doing a crash test, everything you really want to know about injury occurs in anything from one tenth to four tenths of a second.” That’s a fleeting time frame from which to extract the vital data.

For this reason, crash-dummies are particularly high-tech, suited and booted with sensors and instruments aplenty in order to glean the most accurate data possible. This is NASA, remember, it’s not going to resort to those rubbery mannequins you practiced CPR on in secondary school. What’s more, in order to account for a vast spectrum of human adult bodies, the dummies vary in size from 105 pounds to 220 (like me in the last week of December, then).

The experiment is reminiscent of a 2016 test for the Orion crew capsule, a mission intended for deep space whose eventual return is envisaged as a splashdown in the Pacific ocean, slowed by a trio of parachutes. NASA published footage, not dissimilar from this latest video, of two dummies in a mockup of the Orion capsule being dropped into a 20ft-deep pool, the grandly named Hydro Impact Basin.

It’s noble work, albeit undertaken by non-sentient beings, and for that we’ve got to salute these hard-done-by dummies. They’re an enormous force for good in the aviation industry, taking a (literal) hit so you don’t have to.

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