The Jet Engine’s Diamond Jubilee April 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of an achievement that has shaped the world in which we live: the jet engine. On April 12, 1937, Sir Frank Whittle’s nearly ten-year quest to build a working gas turbine engine culminated with a test run of the eponymous WU (for Whittle Unit). During that first lab experiment, the minutiae of WU turbine’s operation were thus: rotated at 8,000 rpm, sucked in 13,000 cubic feet of air per minute, and burned four gallons of fuel per minute. It also nearly destroyed itself as the turbine spun out of control, flames escaped from every crevice, and Whittle’s lab mates ducked for cover. Whittle shut off the fuel valve and waited for the shrieking machine to slow to a halt.
Whittle first joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a sixteen year old and was accepted into a program that trained mechanics. Before long, his mechanical aptitude and mathematical prowess asserted itself, and he was selected for training at Cranwell, the RAF’s officer’s candidate school. At Cranwell, while working on a thesis that addressed high-speed, high-altitude flight, he first had the insight that piston engines and propellers were inadequate to the future of flight that he envisaged. As a direct outcome of that thesis, Whittle applied for and was granted a patent for jet engines in 1930.
The computer scientist Alan Kay has said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Whittle’s patent is a perfect model of that quote in that, in addition to setting out the basic parameters for the jet engine, he also described the techniques that underpin afterburners and thrust vectoring. More importantly, his patent and design reduced the complex allocation of moving parts that exist in a piston engine to a single spinning shaft with a compressor or one end and a turbine wheel on the opposite end.
Like many stories of technical breakthroughs, Whittle’s path to the jet engine was not trouble free. He faced fierce skepticism from his RAF colleagues, financial difficulties (Whittle’s patent expired when he could not afford the renewal fee of £5), and the engineering challenges associated with doing something wholly original. In the end, it was Whittle’s design—the W.1 engine—that thrust the first British jet airplane into the sky on May 15, 1941.
However, by the time that Whittle’s engine successfully flew in the British Gloster E28/39, a German jet, the Heinkel 178 with an engine designed by Hans von Ohain, had flown two years previous. Though Whittle produced the first jet engine, the German military produced the first successful jet aircraft. After the war, both Whittle and von Ohain would ultimately come to reside in the United States (von Ohain in 1947 and Whittle in 1976). See more about the two engineers HERE.
As an aside about experimental aircraft and test pilots: in April 1941, the Gloster E28/39 was being put through a series of taxiing tests using a non-airworthy engine, the W.1X. Much like Howard Hughes’s famous 1947 taxiing test of the Spruce Goose, where he “accidentally” lifted off to an altitude of 70 feet above the ocean near Long Beach, the non-airworthy version of the W.1X took to the skies in a series of six- to ten-feet-high hops above its grass runaway. After all, if you put a pilot in something with wings, what do you expect to happen? NASA knew how pilots behaved. The lunar module for Apollo 10 had just enough fuel to carry out its intended mission of almost landing on the Moon, and it’s been suggested that NASA management didn’t authorize a full fuel load out of fear that crew might make an unscheduled “emergency” landing. NASA higher-ups removed a temptation that earlier test pilots hadn’t been able to resist, the urge to be the first.
A return to today’s main topic: Whittle’s engineering legacy has had far reaching consequences. Gas turbines provide the power for an enormous range of vehicles (tanks and ships in addition to aircraft), and they are also used to generate electrical power. Globally, the size of the civilian aerospace market is $275B. In the United States alone, the value of the airline industry was $180B in 2011.
As soon as you finish reading this post, go outside and look up into the sky. The FAA reports that at any given time, there are as many as 7000 aircraft in the sky. As we write this post, Flightaware, a lovely website for aviation geeks, is reporting that there are 6394 planes in the sky. Using Flightaware’s type tracking feature even allows you to see the types of the airplanes that are flying. A quick glance at that tracking page makes it obvious that the vast majority of the aircraft flying above our heads are powered by some form of jet engine.
A Year of Lofty Video Interviews April 9, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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Over the past year, we’ve been posting VIDEO INTERVIEWS we conducted with a variety of individuals directly involved with the nation’s space program. We’ve talked with Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham and Charlie Duke as well as current Director of Johnson Space Center and shuttle astronaut Mike Coats. We even interviewed Dee O’Hara, the first nurse to the astronauts, and Daniel Lockney, who puts the spin on NASA spinoff technology that has reshaped our everyday lives.
Here, we recap the complete Table of Contents. CLICK ON THE DATE/NAME to see an individual video interview.
05/23/11 Mike Coats: Three-time Shuttle Astronaut & Director of Johnson Space Center
06/13/11 Michael Barratt: One-time Shuttle Astronaut & International Space Station Resident
06/27/11 Rhea Seddon: Three-time Shuttle Astronaut
07/06/11 STS-135 Atlantis Crew: Last-Ever Shuttle Crew
07/11/11 Hoot Gibson: Five-time Shuttle Astronaut
07/13/11 Stephanie Stilson: NASA Director for Shuttle Transition and Retirement
07/25/11 Mike Massimino: Two-time Shuttle Astronaut
08/08/11 Fred Gregory: Three-time Shuttle Astronaut
08/22/11 Mike Good: Two-time Shuttle Astronaut
09/12/11 Shannon Walker: International Space Station Resident
09/26/11 Karol Bobko: Three-time Shuttle Astronaut & Skylab Ground Simulation Astronaut
10/11/11 Jeffrey Rudolph: Director of the California Science Center
10/24/11 Kathy Thornton: Four-time Shuttle Astronaut
11/14/11 Andrew Allen: Three-time Shuttle Astronaut
11/28/11 Daniel Lockney: Program Specialist in NASA’s Office of Innovative Partnerships
12/12/11 Dee O’Hara: First Nurse to the Astronauts
01/09/12 Hank Hartsfield: Three-time Shuttle Astronaut & MOL
02/13/12 Walt Cunningham: Apollo 7 Astronaut
03/12/12 Charlie Duke: Apollo 16 Astronaut & Apollo 11 CAPCOM
04/09/12 Recap & TOC: That’s this post!
Ilan Ramon Day School April 4, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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A couple of Sundays ago, our colleague who runs the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education invited us to the event celebrating the naming of the Ilan Ramon Day School here in California.
Ilan Ramon was the Isreali astronaut on the STS-107 crew in 2003. After completing the objectives of that science-oriented mission, the STS-107 crew perished as the space shuttle Columbia reentered Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart over the southwest United States only minutes before it was to land. Among the objects that survived the accident were thirty-seven pages of the personal diary Ramon kept during the mission.
At the event, Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, spoke beautifully about those pages and presented the head of The 1939 Club, an organization dedicated to Holocaust education that helped host the event, with an artfully designed replica of the surviving diary. One of the most heartwarming stories was of Ilan as a youngster explaining to his schoolmates that he was a miracle, the child and grandchild of Auschwitz survivors. Rona also spoke about the Ramon Foundation, which honors both her husband and her oldest son, who died in a military training flight in 2009. She founded the organization to foster leadership and scientific and technological research in Israel and expressed appreciation that such values are embodied by the school that now bears her husband’s name.
The event itself was brimming with food and dancing. And the Beverly Hills Hotel was an especially charming venue, a place we were glad to finally see in person. The hundred-year-old hotel welcomed royalty and celebrities among their guests. Charlie Chaplin was a guest in the 1920s, the Rat Pack of the 1950s drank in the Polo Lounge, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed there in the 1970s. Neil Simon’s film version of California Suite was filmed at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Among the other guests at the celebration was our Lofty Ambitions first-ever guest blogger Chris Cowen, who was a producer on An Article of Hope, a documentary about the Columbia accident that focuses on Ilan Ramon and the Judaica he brought to space. It was great to chat with Chris again in person.
Next to Chris sat Scott Pomrehn, the Director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California. The center opened in 2010 and is now hosting exhibits and educational sessions. Right now, “Suited for Space” shows visitors the history and design of spacesuits. Scott is really excited about the center, which does a lot of educational outreach with kids and also houses one of the 48 Challenger Learning Centers in the world.
One of our longest conversations was with former astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish resident on the International Space Station when he spent three months there in 2008. He also flew on STS-132 in 2010 for Atlantis’s penultimate mission. In fact, when we were at Kennedy Space Center for Endeavour’s not-launch, we were scheduled to interview Reisman on launch day. When the launch was scrubbed, all the interviews were too.
We enjoyed talking with Reisman, who now works for SpaceX. He said that the planned April 30 launch of the Dragon capsule looks pretty good, and he doesn’t expect a delay, at least not beyond those somewhat routine, last-minute, day-or-two delays. Because Reisman flew on all three remaining shuttles, we couldn’t help asking which orbiter was his favorite. Like many, he had trouble committing, though he did say that each handled differently and Discovery had more vibration on re-entry.
We were again reminded of Stephen Colbert’s advice during his commencement speech at Knox College in 2006: say yes, say yes-and. We said yes to a small invitation from a thoughtful colleague to an event to celebrate education and the Jewish tradition, and we met another astronaut. Without any evident bitterness, Rona Ramon portrayed her husband Ilan as someone who said yes to opportunities both small and much, much larger and, sometimes, dangerous.