Interior of the 20-foot diameter vacuum tank at the NASA Lewis Research Center’s Electric Propulsion Laboratory. Lewis researchers had been studying different electric rocket propulsion methods since the mid-1950s. Harold Kaufman created the first successful ion engine, the electron bombardment ion engine, in the early 1960s. These engines used electric power to create and accelerate small particles of propellant material to high exhaust velocities. Electric engines have a very small thrust, but can operate for long periods of time. The ion engines are often clustered together to provide higher levels of thrust.
The Electric Propulsion Laboratory, which began operation in 1961, contained two large vacuum tanks capable of simulating a space environment. The tanks were designed especially for testing ion and plasma thrusters and spacecraft. The larger 25-foot diameter tank included a 10-foot diameter test compartment to test electric thrusters with condensable propellants. The portals along the chamber floor lead to the massive exhauster equipment that pumped out the air to simulate the low pressures found in space.