Supersonic Flight: The Shape of Things to Come (Part 1) December 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives
1 comment so far
Concorde, known for its supersonic, trans-Atlantic flights of yesteryear, was in the news just past week, as a French court overturned manslaughter convictions and upheld civil damages in relation to the Air France 4590 crash in 2000. To some, this story might seem an afterthought to the dashed hopes for supersonic flight.
The dream of commercial, supersonic transports capable of safely and cheaply whisking business passengers through a geographically dispersed day, breakfast in London, lunch in New York City, and back to London for dinner, is nearly as old as supersonic flight itself. By the mid-1950s, mainstream publications like the Saturday Evening Post were breathlessly predicting, “No doubt we’ll be flying faster than sound by the thousands in a few years.”
The closest that commercial aviation ever came to realizing that prediction was Concorde. But Concorde, never able to fly profitably even in the best of times, was done in by steadily increasing fuel costs, decreased travel after 9/11, and a deadly accident. It’s been nearly a decade since Concorde’s last revenue flight in 2003.
Less than a decade ago, test flights by the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration (SSBD) aircraft renewed hope for commercially viable supersonic flight. New designs for commercial supersonic aircraft turn up at the major international air shows regularly and increasingly target the lucrative business-jet market, the so-called supersonic business jets (SSBJ). These designs owe much to the ground-breaking technology established by the SSBD.
In the days prior to this year’s Farnbourough International Airshow, media outlets were rife with rumours of an announcement that had NASA joining forces with some combination of Gulfstream, Boeing, or Lockheed-Martin to bring a version of the X-54 SSBJ to market by 2030. Despite the frenzied anticipation, no such announcement was made.
At Le Bourget 2011, the Euro-conglomerate European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), the parent company of Airbus, announced the Zero-Emission High Speed Transport (ZEHST), a technology demonstrator featuring three separate propulsion systems—turbofan, ramjet, and cryogenic rocket engines—that will take to the skies in 2050. A second design, the SonicStar, a supersonic business jet with a more immediate timetable of first flight in 2021, was also announced at Le Bourget 2011, presented by British aerospace startup HyperMach. Both designs claimed to incorporate engineering solutions for addressing an aspect of the fundamental physics of supersonic flight that has accompanied every breaking through the sound barrier since Chuck Yeager’s 1947 flight, the sonic boom.
The passage of an aircraft through our planet’s ocean of air is often likened to a boat moving across the water. The boat’s passage is marked by waves of reflected energy as its hull pushes through the water. Visualizing a boat’s wake is misleading to a degree because we only see the two-dimensional “V” spreading out from the boat on the water’s surface. In reality, the mechanical wave and its associated pressure increase are also spreading out underneath the boat. In physics, a mechanical wave is one that requires a medium—water for the boat, air for the airplane—in which to travel, as opposed to an electromagnetic wave, which can propagate in a vacuum.
The mechanical waves generated by an aircraft are sound waves, miniscule increases in pressure generated by the aircraft’s body pushing and compressing air molecules as it passes. Below the speed of sound, these pressure waves radiate outward from the aircraft in three dimensions. As an aircraft approaches the speed of sound (761 mph at sea level and 59 F), the pressure waves are only moving slightly faster than the aircraft, so they bunch up together just in front of the aircraft’s surfaces (cf. “Supersonic Revolution” by Richard Hallion, Aviation History, July 2011): the nose, the wing leading edges, and the empennage. As an aircraft reaches the speed of sound, the bunched pressure waves actually combine into a big single shock wave. That shock wave is heard as a sonic boom.
The sonic boom is characterized by the dramatic increase in pressure at the aircraft’s nose and by a steady decrease in pressure to below atmospheric levels at the aircraft’s tail. After the supersonic aircraft passes, the pressure sharply increases to return to atmospheric levels. The two pressure increases—one at the aircraft’s nose and the other after it passes—produce the sonic boom’s double-bang sound. This sequence of increase–linear decrease–increase in pressure gives the wave its characteristic shape (up, down, up) and name: the N-wave.
In an interview for the NOVA program Supersonic Dream on Concorde, James Hamilton, at one-time the Director-General of Concorde, compared the sound of an aircraft approaching at subsonic speeds with the surprise arrival of sound associated with a supersonic aircraft: “You hear nothing until you get all the noise collected together, as it were, and when that happens, instead of a getting a continuous rumble of noise, you get a very sharp boom.”
Federal Aviation Regulation 91.817 prohibits flying over land at supersonic speeds for civil aircraft in the United States. The regulation specifies that aircraft “will not cause a sonic boom to reach the surface within the United States.” In the mid-1960s, the FAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force conducted a six-month experiment into the effects of sonic booms on a human population by performing supersonic overflights of Oklahoma City. Using a mixture of F-101s, F-104s, F-106s, and B-58s, the experiment, initially designed to provide favorable support for continuing the development of an American version of Concorde, the supersonic transport (SST), subjected the residents of Oklahoma City to 1,253 sonic booms. In the end, public outcry led to the early cessation of the experiment and, ultimately, a class action suit that the government lost.
After it was prohibited by law, the inability to conduct overland supersonic flight restricted the usefulness and profitability of Concorde by limiting it to a handful of transatlantic routes.
The X-54, ZEST, and SonicStar are being designed to make use of sonic boom mitigation techniques, techniques that will attempt to reduce the pressure wave that reaches the ground by shaping the shock wave that emanates from an aircraft traveling faster than sound, techniques that were pioneered by the SSBD.
Next Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at this aircraft with looks that only an engineer could love.
I Remember California: From Florida to California (Photos) September 24, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, I Remember California, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
add a comment
We are back home again, back at our jobs today. In our absence, no classes were canceled, no big tasks cast aside. Admittedly, our energy reserves are depleted, but we are relatively rested after what was a more demanding week than we expected. We are happy to be back at our desks, talking with students, and also happy for the memories of the last ten days, grateful that it all worked out. Here, we share a photo essay chronicling Endeavour‘s cross-country journey from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Dryden Flight Research Center in California and beyond.
For videos, check the last several posts here at Lofty Ambitions. And we’re gathering a few thoughts to share in Wednesday’s regular post. In the meantime, enjoy the last flight of any space shuttle ever.
I Remember California: Endeavour, Still Delayed? September 18, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: I Remember California, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
1 comment so far
As with any long-term project: life intervenes. Anna has to be back in California on Tuesday for class and for the opening poet of this year’s Tabula Poetica reading series, Victoria Chang. It’s a coast-to-coast day for Anna (after a five-hour, go-nowhere attempt yesterday). Her day begins with a 6:40 a.m. flight to Dallas and then onto California and home. Doug will spend most of the morning trying to decide whether or not the weather justifies sticking around Florida for another day. Right now, it looks pretty grim. NASA will meet at 11 a.m. to decide if the thunderstorm cells hovering in the Gulf of Mexico justify a further delay in Endeavour’s cross-country trek to its new home at the California Science Center.
We’ve just learned that Endeavour and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft have been rolled back into the Mate/De-Mate Device to better weather this afternoon’s expected thunderstorms. Here’s the video that we shot of Sunday’s rollback. You can run it reverse to get a sense of today’s events. It nicely portrays how we’re feeling at the moment.
From 3R’s to STEAM (Discovery Departure, Part 11) July 25, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Art & Science, Discovery Departure, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
add a comment
Although it seems ages ago at this point, a little over two months ago, we were in Washington, DC, watching two space shuttles, Discovery and Enterprise, move to their permanent homes. Discovery took up residence in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, in a very deft and public move into the gallery that Enterprise formerly occupied. Enterprise headed for a new midtown address in the City that Never Sleeps, taking up residence at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
In our ten-hour day at Udvar-Hazy, we not only got to see Enterprise meet Discover;, the two shuttles had never been in the same place before. As members of the press, we had the opportunity to interview several of the speakers from that morning’s ceremony. We’ve already written about our interviews with astronaut and Senator John Glenn, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and the first woman to command a space shuttle, Eileen Collins. Two of our other conversations from that day were with people directly connected to Discovery’s new home: Dr. Wayne Clough, the twelfth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and General John R. Dailey, Director of the National Air and Space Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian system. Both men were enthusiastic about what has come to be known as STEAM.
We had heard of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—before and make that the topic of one question we usually asked astronauts we meet. What, then, was STEAM? Dailey made it clear that art is now part of thinking when it comes to educating future generations and informing the public who wander their ways through the National Air & Space Museum’s two facilities. Art is crucial in the educational configuration of subjects because it embodies creativity, imagination, and innovation. The approach of the artist is necessary for big leaps in the STEM disciplines and important for cultural development more generally.
We had, in fact, viewed an art exhibit at the facility on The Mall the day before the Discovery installation and meeting these two men. The National Air and Space Museum has a 4500-object art collection, of which they have space to display very little. Dailey’s hope is for increased visibility of that collection in its current buildings and, importantly, a new art facility that will contain exhibits and long-term storage. Having seen images from the Hubble Telescope exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and, earlier, another exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, we can understand the importance and value of making such artwork available more widely. We can imagine the hundreds of paintings of aircraft that are currently in crates and out of view and how bringing those to light would generate a conversation about the relationships between form and function, aesthetics and technological innovation.
In addition to the physical objects, the National Air and Space Museum has committed to digitizing as much of its holdings as feasible, eventually making every artifact in its collection accessible online. Dailey stated that, when an artifact is added to the collection now, it is photographed in 144 views so that it can be rendered digitally in three dimensions. This commitment fits the museum’s mission and allows millions of teachers and students to study the museum’s collection.
Clough concurred, saying that he grew up in a small country town and was unaware that such things as these artifacts existed. “That’s a shame,” he stated, clearly wanting to ensure that future generations have more access to the artifacts of the century of flight and the objects of the Space Age than he did.
The National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are on board with STEAM, each having new grant programs to encourage connections and collaborations between the arts and sciences. Though we hadn’t heard the term STEAM before talking with these two gentlemen, Lofty Ambitions has been engaged in this combination. We are, after all, a poet and a scientist. In addition, check out the following guest posts for some other great examples of STEAM in action:
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
add a comment
In last week’s post (with links to the whole series), we covered the aircraft and other artifacts that are on display at Palmdale’s Joe Davies Heritage Airpark and Blackbird Airpark—the first two parts of our Palmdale Trifecta. This week, we’re returning attention to Blackbird Airpark because, in addition to the static aircraft on display, the facility also has a museum on the premises. More importantly, the museum was staffed by two docents, Lloyd Proffitt and Ray Vonier. As we often discuss at Lofty Ambitions, it’s the stories told by people about the technology they had a hand in creating that breathes life into machines, which would otherwise be merely static displays, immobile and inanimate.
When Doug spoke with Lloyd and Ray, each of the men was generous with his time and spoke freely about his lengthy aerospace career and his current involvement as a volunteer at the air park.
The history of the aviation industry, particularly in defense- and space-oriented Southern California, has been of cycles of boom and bust. Lloyd spent forty-seven years with Boeing, retiring in 2009. Layoffs and moving from one aerospace company to another, following whoever had just signed a large contract, has been commonplace for employees in the aviation industry. That Lloyd was only laid off once—for a brief two months—and spent his entire company with a single company is rather remarkable.
Lloyd started his career in aerospace as a Flight Test Engineer working on the Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) program. Lloyd’s position involved base activations—essentially all the work required to introduce and deploy the missile from a new sight—at Air Force bases all around the country. Lloyd’s travels began in White Sands, New Mexico, and saw him pass through K.I. Sawyer AFB (now Sawyer Airport) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a place where Doug and Anna once took a behind-the-scenes tour) and Griffis AFB in upstate New York. A highlight in Lloyd’s later career was working on Air Force One, the plane on which the President of the United States flies. Lloyd has been a volunteer at Blackbird Airpark’s museum and gift store for two years, and he says he did it because he wanted to “give back a little bit.”
While Lloyd’s aviation career covered an impressive timeframe, he has a way to go in terms of volunteering at the museum before he catches up with Ray Vonier. Ray has spent nearly a whole career as a volunteer at Blackbird Air Park: twenty-one years.
Ray’s contributions have touched upon nearly every aspect of the airpark and museum. He helped to restore both the A-12 and SR-71 aircraft there. One of his many tasks included replacing one thousand screws in the SR-71 during a year-long restoration. Another project that Ray took on was to build a number of SR-71s and A-12s as model airplanes. Each of the model aircraft he built is on display in a case behind the museum’s gift store counter. Each is a faithful replica of a specific aircraft, and most are signed by Blackbird pilots who flew the actual aircraft. Also in the model display case is a remarkable toy reconnaissance pilot in a pretty faithful-looking yellow pressure suit. When Doug asked Ray where he got it, he replied that they were long out of production but that they occasionally showed up on internet auction sites. Ray hastened to add that they weren’t cheap.
Ray spent his career as an electrician and one of the programs he worked on was shuttle. He specifically contributed to the building of two orbiters: Atlantis and Columbia. Ray insisted that it was a privilege to work on shuttle and that “they didn’t have to pay me.” He added with a very earnest smile that he had “a lot of memories on that program.” Intriguingly, Ray ended our conversation by mentioning that he’d worked at “The Area”—Area 51, the secret military base—for a year, but he couldn’t talk about that particular time in his career.
At Lofty Ambitions, it’s pretty clear at this point that we like airplanes. A lot. For various reasons, intellectual and aesthetic.
We also like people. Their stories are the meaningful context for the aircraft. These stories add a dimension to the aircraft, one that you couldn’t see even if they still flew. People poured their lives into creating these machines, and those stories are every bit as important as the flight characteristics and operational history.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
add a comment
Each of the past three Wednesdays, we’ve focused on writing about Doug’s experience at the NASA Social event held at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) on May 4th. Here are the links to those previous posts:
May 16: A is for Aeronautics
Never one to waste an aviation-related opportunity, Doug wrapped up the #DrydenSocial event by spending the next day visiting some of the other aviation attractions in the area. Palmdale, about thirty miles southwest of the Dryden/Edwards Air Force Base complex, has a rich aviation history of its own.
In the early 1950s, just as the Cold War was heating up, the U.S. Air Force decided that it needed a facility to develop, build, and test new jet aircraft. But that the facility had to meet several criteria: remote enough that prying eyes wouldn’t be a security problem, but simultaneously located near a sizable aviation manufacturing base. Palmdale, situated between Edwards AFB’s growing flight test center and Los Angeles’s aircraft manufacturing base fit the bill. Over the years, the combination of government and public companies that exists at Palmdale’s Plant 42 has given rise to a number of aircraft designs, including the B-2 stealth bomber. From our Lofty Ambitions point of view, the most important and historic vehicle to come out of Plant 42 was the space shuttle.
With that much aviation and aerospace history to go around, it’s no surprise that Palmdale offers two separate airparks in which to see and learn about aviation history. What is a bit of a surprise is that the two facilities, Joe Davies Heritage Airpark and Blackbird Airpark, are adjacent to each other, separated by only a small patch of open ground and a chain-link fence, with an obvious path and opening in the fence. In fact, you can walk from one right into to the other.
Joe Davies Heritage Airpark is eclectic mixture of aircraft, all on static display, some of which have a connection to Plant 42 (a 1/8th-scale B-2 on a pole greets visitors), but most of which don’t. From our perspective, the pick of the litter is a very clean C-46 Commando sitting in one corner. Oddly, many folks define the “air” part of “airpark” differently than Lofty Ambitions and put the emphasis on “park.” Joe Davies Heritage Airpark has numerous picnic tables, many of them brimming with families having lunch in the California sun.
Blackbird Airpark is affiliated with the Air Force Flight Test Museum. Doug didn’t have a chance to visit the Flight Test Museum while he was at DFRC. Unfortunately, since the Flight Test Museum is on the grounds of Edwards AFB, you have to have a pass and a reason to visit it. Hopefully, we’ll get back there at some future date, but it’s not something you can just happen upon.
Blackbird Airpark, which is more easily accessible to the public, is eponymously named for the Cold-War-era, Mach-3-capable, Lockheed SR-71 spy plane. An example of this breed—a two-seat trainer—is located front and center on the airpark’s grounds. Three other aircraft are also permanently displayed: a U-2 spy plane, a Lockheed A-12 (the SR-71’s very closely related predecessor), and a F-117 Nighthawk (almost always referred to as Stealth Fighters). The display area also includes an example of an SR-71 engine, the Pratt & Whitney J-58; a D-21 reconnaissance drone, an early unmanned aerial vehicle meant to be launched from the back of an SR-7; and a wind-tunnel model of a Blackbird.
As might be expected in a gathering of aviation nerds like those assembled for #DrydenSocial, Doug wasn’t the only NASA Social attendee who had the idea of spending Saturday at Blackbird Park. While at Blackbird Airpark, Doug ran into James Gomez (a fellow resident of Orange), Arun Ponnusamy, and Denny Atkin.
The final stop for the day was at Dryden’s nearby Aircraft Operations Facility. Arun pointed out that one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft was parked on the grounds of the Aircraft Operation Facilty and that it could be seen from the grounds of the airpark. (In fact, he also came back to the airpark after driving to Aircraft Operation Facility to let Doug know how to get there. Thanks, Arun!). Having just seen the other, still-active Shuttle Aircraft Carrier at the Space Coast and in Washington, D.C., a few weeks earlier, it was great to have the opportunity to peruse the retired SCA before it’s cannibalized to support the other 747s in NASA’s fleet.
During the #DrydenSocial, one of the DFRC handlers mentioned the potential of visiting the Aircraft Operation Facilty for a future NASA Social. If that turns out to be the case, we certainly hope we get selected for that event so we can get the inside view.
A Day at NASA’s Dryden Research Center (#NASASocial), Part 3: Of U-2’s, Xombies, X-48’s, and YO-3’s—Or why there’s so much fun at the other end of the alphabet May 23, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Dryden Flight Research Center, Space Shuttle
1 comment so far
In last week’s post, we covered a good deal of the How’s and Why’s of the aeronautics research program at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC). This week, we’ll take a look at the Who’s and What’s. Questions like, Who is it that actually makes and flies these contraptions? And, What needs to happen to carry out the DFRC research mission?
The last session before the lunch break of the NASASocial a few weeks ago was an opportunity to meet some of the Dryden test pilots and flight test engineers. DFRC’s chief test pilot Nils Larson presented an overview of life as a Dryden test pilot. During his presentation and the ensuing Q&A, Larson discussed flying the U-2—the NASA version is known as the ER-2. Larson is an extremely experienced U-2 pilot, having spent part of his Air Force career, first flying and then later as an operations commander for a detachment of U-2s at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in nearby Palmdale. The U-2/ER-2 has a reputation as a twitchy, demanding aircraft to fly. Larson hinted as the type’s quirks when he said, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.” Larson also related that all but one of the Dryden ER-2s was specifically purchased for NASA. An autograph session featuring eight DFRC test pilots and engineers wrapped up the #DrydenSocial morning session.
The program after lunch was every bit as exciting and engaging as the morning’s program. John Kelly, a NASA program manager discussed the Flight Opportunities Program, which is designed to make getting payloads into space more flexible and to foster a wider range of commercial interest in space technologies. One project that Kelly mentioned as a particular success was a recent test of the Xombie suborbital spacecraft produced by Masten Space Systems. In this test flight, the Xombie demonstrated vertical takeoff from a launch pad, lateral navigation to a second pad, and vertical landing on the second pad. The Xombie spacecraft was controlled by the GENIE (Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment) navigational computer during the test. GENIE was produced by Draper Laboratory, a non-profit research institute spun off from MIT in 1973. Draper is not new to space exploration, having developed the guidance computers for the Apollo missions.
It’s arguable that the title of “Best Job in the World” belongs either to Jim Ross, Dryden’s Multimedia Supervisor, or to Lori Losey, Dryden’s Senior Video Producer/Director. Their jobs titles differ, but they both get to ride in the back seat of a chase aircraft, often one of NASA’s F-18s, to capture images of test flights. Ross related that this was an unexpected career choice because, as a child, he got carsick backing out of the driveway. Even after riding in high performance jets for years, Ross and Losey admit that they still get motion sickness on occasion. They’ve both learned a variety of coping mechanisms, and Losey indicated that, on flying days, her breakfast choices are limited to oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. But, if diet and preparation fail, and she finds herself ill during a flight, Losey assured us that it’s possible to “puke into an airsick bag in a 3-G turn” while still getting the shot. Doug still can’t figure out the mechanics of that maneuver. You can watch a video of Losey describing her job.
A tour of Hangar 4802 was next up on the agenda. During the tour, the Dryden handlers arranged for each of the NASA Social attendees to have their photo taken while sitting in the cockpit of a NASA F-18. The hangar also included several fascinating test aircraft, such as the X-48 and the YO-3. The X-48 is a blended wing-body aircraft that looks to have more in common with flying wings like the B-2 stealth bomber than traditional civilian aircraft. With a wingspan of just over twenty feet and weight of five hundred pounds, the X-48 reminds one of a remote-control aircraft. It is in fact, a very serious test aircraft that flew a comprehensive series of flights in 2006-2008. At that time, the aircraft was known as the X-48B and had three engines. After recently being modified with only two engines, the aircraft has been re-designated the X-48C.
Near the hangar door sat the YO-3A, an aircraft that DFRC uses for acoustic research. The YO-3A is perfectly suited to this kind of work, as it started life as an unpowered sailplane. The aircraft is now powered by a standard Continental aircraft engine as a result of a program to produce “ultra-quiet” observation aircraft for the Vietnam War.
The final stop on the Hangar 4802 tour was a visit to the CTV, or the Crew Transport Vehicle. At Dryden, the CTV was used to transport and checkout shuttle astronauts on those occasions when the shuttle landed in California. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of flying through Dulles International Airport, the CTV will be instantly recognizable to you as a “people mover” between points such as the terminal and concourse. In fact, this particular people mover was originally used at Baltimore-Washington International Airport(BWI) and was acquired By Dryden in 1991.
After returning from Hangar 4802, the #DrydenSocial handlers started to wrap up the day. A couple of fantastic moments still remained: a book give-away and dinner at Domingo’s Mexican Restaurant, where space shuttle astronauts were said to congregate when the mission ended in California instead of back at Kennedy Space Center.
The NASA Social events have become a fantastic vehicle for NASA to promote its accomplishments through social media. The #DrydenSocial event was exceptional in this regard. The access and information that NASA provided resulted in a day full of happy tweets, enthusiastic Facebook updates, and whatever it is that you do in Google+. NASA Social events are announced HERE. Lofty Ambitions highly recommends that you check one out.
Tags: Apollo, Concorde, Dryden Flight Research Center, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
add a comment
A clear and consistent message was delivered at both the #DrydenSocial and last fall’s GRAIL Tweetup: NASA wants to use social media to help spread the word of its achievements. To that end, NASA trots out its best and brightest to address event attendees and then mixes in the kind of moments that only NASA can deliver.
To that end, the morning session of the May 4th NASA Social event at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) offered a broad overview of Dryden’s historical and continuing role in aeronautics research. David McBride, Center Director for DFRC and Christian Gelzer, Chief Historian, provided a wealth of contextual information in the day’s first two talks.
The wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and whose book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Anna has just finished reading, has been making some interesting comparisons regarding NASA’s budget of late. According to Tyson (watch the video HERE), the $850 billion spent on TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is greater than NASA’s budget for the fifty-plus years that NASA has been in existence.
In no particular order, here are some the achievements that NASA’s budget has funded in that five-decade span:
• the Hubble Space Telescope and its associated increase in our understanding of the universe;
• a significant portion of the International Space Station (ISS);
• the Space Transportation System (the shuttle) that carried Hubble and the ISS’s pieces into orbit;
• deep space probes such as the Voyagers, planetary landers and rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity;
• myriad Earth-orbiting satellites that have taught us much about our planet’s weather, composition, and history;
• and of course, the Apollo program and the astronauts who landed on the moon.
Note that all of these scientific and engineering achievements have something to do with space. Space is sexy, space gets people’s attention.
That said, the first A in NASA is for Aeronautics. In recent years, aeronautics has been a remarkably small piece of NASA’s little pie. In his introduction to the NASA Social #DrydenSocial attendees, David McBride, Dryden’s Director, pointed out that aeronautics research receives about 2.5% of NASA’s roughly $18 billion dollar budget in any given year. Those monies go towards funding the four dedicated NASA Aeronautics Research Centers: Langley, Glenn, Ames, and Dryden. At the end of that quickly narrowing financial funnel, Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) receives less than 1% of NASA’s budget.
It turns out, however, that the first A in NASA is a really important part of the United States’ overall economic picture. McBride indicated that the manufacture of aircraft and its associated industries were the single greatest positive contributor to the U.S. balance of trade. NASA’s own web pages put the scope of aviation’s influence in the U.S. economy as follows:
“Aviation generates more than $400 billion in direct economic activity, supports more than 650,000 jobs and accommodates more than 600 million passengers every year in the United States.”
At last fall’s GRAIL Tweetup, Charlie Bolden also addressed the importance of aeronautics, when he said that he would like a part of his legacy as NASA Administrator to include leaving funding for aeronautics research on a “upward trend” in order to return NASA to its traditional status as the “premier aeronautics research organization in the world.”
The technical talks at #DrydenSocial started with engineer Ed Haering, who is a superstar in the world of supersonic booms. Haering’s presentation covered work that has been done at DFRC to mitigate—sshhh!—supersonic booms. Because commercial aircraft are prohibited from flying over land at supersonic speeds (this was a huge problem for Concorde), this research is imperative if we’re ever to see another supersonic transport aircraft. The Lofty duo actually had the opportunity to see some of Ed’s work up close and personal when we visited Valiant Air Command in Titusville, Florida. Valiant is the home of the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration (SSBD) aircraft, a test aircraft on which Haering worked at Dryden. As its name suggest, the SSBD successfully demonstrated that a sonic boom could be shaped to reduce its impact, and by impact, we mean noise.
On the heels of Haering’s talk was an opportunity head outside and experience a sonic boom firsthand. Shortly after the #DrydenSocial attendees were led outside for a photograph beneath the wings of the X-1E, an F-18 flew overhead accompanied by the telltale crack of a sonic boom. Moments after that, the same F-18 treated us to a loud-and-low flyby.
In a day of artifacts and factoids, one that would have made a great impression on Anna, had she been there too, concerned the front of Dryden’s administration building. As we gathered around the X-1E, one of the handlers assigned to our group related that the front of the administration building had stood in for the NASA’s offices in I Dream of Jeannie. (If you want to read more about I Dream of Jeannie, click HERE.)
For Doug, though, the artifact that made the greatest impression was the insect-like Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV, in the photo above) which was located in a nearby hangar. The M2-F2 lifting body, used to validate the design of the space shuttles and located in the same storage space as the LLRV was a close second.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, WWII
add a comment
For more than seventy years, a dry lakebed in Southern California’s interior has been a hotbed of aviation research, development, and testing. During that time, the nearly five hundred square miles of flattened high desert, situated in the Antelope Valley and bordered by the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountain ranges, has been home to a series of military bases and government research centers. Presently, Edwards Air Force Base, home to the Air Force Flight Test Center, and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) inhabit the lakebed, each having their own buildings and hangars, but sharing the runways.
Doug visited the Dryden/Edwards complex this past Friday. Doug and Anna had previously visited the area in November 2008, in order to watch the completion of STS-126, when space shuttle Endeavour landed in California. The occasion of Doug’s most recent visit to DFRC was a NASA Social event. A NASA Social—previously known as a NASA Tweetup but now extended to include other social media platforms—is by invitation only, and Doug was selected in a lottery.
NASA has made a big commitment to social media in an effort to tell its story, and #DrydenSocial was the thirty-seventh event that they have held since their first, a Tweetup at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in January 2009. This is the second such NASA event that Doug has attended; he was at Tweetup for the GRAIL launch in September.
The Dryden/Edwards area first became a home to military aircraft in the 1930s as a bombing range for pilots flying out of March Field in nearby Riverside. During World War II, the bombing range became Muroc Army Air Base. The facility added test flight and engineering to its repertoire during the war; it was the place where America’s first jet fighter, the Bell XP-59A was tested. Those aeronautical engineering and development activities became a focus for the facility in the post-war years. This change in emphasis reached its logical conclusion when the Bell X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, ushered in the era of supersonic flight by breaking the sound barrier there on October 14, 1947. Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base—honoring test pilot Glenn Edwards—in 1949.
NASA’s predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, first began flying from the lakebed just after the war’s end in 1946. Over time, DRFC has been known by a dizzying array of names. For a catalog of its previous names, consult the Introduction in Images of Aviation: Edwards Air Force Base by Ted Huetter and Christian Gelzer.
If you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff or seen the movie, as soon as you arrive at Edwards you expect to hear the air-shattering cracks associated with sonic booms or to catch a glimpse of a fast-moving, yet improbably shaped, aircraft. Instead, what you notice is the scale of the place, the distances involved. In order to reach DRFC’s front door, you have to drive nearly ten miles after you leave the Air Force guards and gates in your review mirror. The entire drive, save the last hundred yards, is spent on a single road, Rosamond Boulevard. On a map or from the air, Rosamond Boulevard arcs through the landscape, a bite mark carving out a quarter of the facility.
The road that leads from Rosamond to the DFRC parking lot is named for another test pilot, Howard Lilly. Lilly was NACA’s first test pilot assigned to Muroc, third to break the speed of sound, and first to be killed on the job. After a while, it becomes clear that having something bear your name at this site is a mixed-bag. Unless you’re lucky enough to see an aircraft in flight while driving in, the next thing you notice after parking your car is the wind. It comes at you from every direction, all the time.
Near Dryden’s parking lot is a display area of former NASA test aircraft. Prior to beginning the day’s event, DFRC Chief Historian Dr. Christian Gelzer (co-author of the book mentioned above) was in the display area describing the assemblage of test vehicles: the HL-10 lifting body, used to validate ideas that would later be used in the shuttle; an SR-71 Blackbird; the F-8 Crusader used to develop fly-by-wire, a technology that eliminated the mechanical connection between the pilot and an aircraft’s control surfaces; another F-8 Crusader, this one used for Super Critical Wing studies; the X-29, whose flight on forward-swept wings was made possible only by computer control; and one of the eleven F-104s that served as a chase planes at DFRC for almost forty years (1956-1994).
Among the topics that Gelzer discussed in his pre-event tour through static display aircraft was the concept of Armstrong’s Line, or sometimes called Armstrong’s Limit. As Gelzer described it, Armstrong’s Line, named for physician Harry Armstrong (not to be confused with Neil’s famous spoken line), is that height above the earth’s surface beyond which the air pressure is not sufficient to maintain your corporeal liquids. In other words, above approximately 62,000 feet, the air pressure is so low that your body’s own natural temperature is enough to boil the water in your blood, your tissues, and even your bones. Given the impulse of Dryden’s test pilots to fly ever higher over the years, it isn’t much of a surprise that Armstrong’s Line is common banter around and above the dry lakebed.
We’ll have more about DFRC and Doug’s Dryden Social-izing soon.
Discovery Departure (Part 7: More Interviews) April 25, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Discovery Departure, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
add a comment
NOTE: We have a piece called “Nostalgia for the Small Airport” up at Airplane Reading, a venue dedicated to “a kind of storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” After you read our post here, check out our story there too.
On April 19, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery was installed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, and Lofty Ambitions was there. To see the whole series thus far, just click on the tag “Discovery Departure” in the tag cloud in the right sidebar.
Between the outdoor ceremony of speeches in front of the nose-to-nose orbiters and the actual placement of Discovery inside the James S. MacDonnell Hangar, several museum and NASA bigwigs wended their way down a press receiving line and gave Lofty Ambitions a chance to ask a few questions one on one.
The oldest and most recognizable of the VIPs was, of course, 90-year-old John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth and a longtime senator of yesteryear. Doug asked Glenn about his remarks during the ceremony that NASA had stopped flying the shuttle too soon. Glenn’s response was immediate and forceful: it wasn’t NASA that made the decision to stop flying the shuttle. Of course, it wasn’t; in 2004, President George W. Bush set the termination date for the space shuttle program, though Glenn didn’t name names.
Glenn went on, obviously exuding great respect for NASA and the job the agency has done. He called the shuttle “the most intricate, complex machine people have ever made.” But he is also clearly frustrated that NASA had been given marching orders to go to Mars without receiving any budget increase to fund such an effort. The shuttle program had to end in order to free up resources that can now be used to work toward manned Mars exploration.
Glenn’s responses were earnest, whole-hearted, and unexpected in the context of the day’s scripted events and positive public relations. Very few of NASA’s anointed ambassadors have been willing to say that the United States should still be flying shuttle. The most vigorous defense of shuttle by NASA’s chosen few came when it was already too late. In September 2011, four months after the last space shuttle mission ended, 82-year-old Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the Moon, and 77-year-old Gene Cernan, the Moon’s last human visitor, testified before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to advocate that the shuttles be returned to flight status.
Wanting to see how NASA viewed Glenn’s frank remarks, Doug posed a variation of the same question to Charlie Bolden, the Administrator of NASA—NASA’s top guy and also a Discovery commander. Bolden flew twice in Discovery, in fact, on STS-31, which launched the Hubble Space Telescope, and STS-60, on which a Russian, Sergei Krikalev, flew as a mission specialist. In this respect, Bolden was an integral part of the space shuttle program’s most admired accomplishments: Hubble and its scientific achievements as well as the International Space Station (ISS) and the global cooperation that made it happen.
Bolden was in a very delicate position with regard to his response to our question, with Glenn, who had also flown aboard Discovery in his return to space, just a few paces away and the nation’s capital just a few miles away, where Congress controls his agency’s purse-strings. Bolden needed to respect NASA’s past in the form of Glenn and also respect the agency’s current reality in these times of economic constraints—he has a difficult job.
Bolden indicated that he had no desire to “put words in Senator Glenn’s mouth,” but that he was certain that the former senator was fully supportive of NASA’s current program of exploration and research. Bolden then took the opportunity to reiterate some talking points that he often touches upon: namely, he’s passionate about manned space exploration and the work on the ISS. The only part of Bolden’s response that directly touched upon the shuttle’s former role was his reaffirmation of the belief that it is time for the private sector to handle low-Earth orbit.
One obvious point to make concerning Bolden’s remarks vis-à-vis those of Glenn is that the senator could easily be in complete accord with NASA’s program of exploration and research, yet still think that the shuttle fleet should not be museum artifacts. And that is, of course, exactly what the first American to orbit the earth said.
Aside from Charlie Bolden, Eileen Collins was one of the few Discovery commanders to make her way down the press receiving line. Several news outlets wanted her time, and it’s no wonder, since she was the first woman to pilot the shuttle and, later, the first woman to command the shuttle. After Collins finished telling one reporter that Hubble is Discovery’s greatest legacy and was waiting for a reporter to finish up with another VIP, Anna asked her favorite question once again: “Discovery—great shuttle, or the greatest shuttle?” Collins smiled, and her eyes revealed before her words did that she didn’t want to be caught playing favorites. She pointed out, “I flew Discovery for my first mission and my last mission.” Then, as we’ve heard from others, she added, “But I will say I have a special place in my heart for Columbia.” The older shuttle astronauts may remember Challenger in these terms. Many of those who weren’t in the astronaut corps before 1986, when Challenger broke apart on ascent, flew Columbia and tend to mention that lost orbiter fondly whenever they have a chance (as some did in their video interviews with Lofty Ambitions).
Our conversations at Kennedy Space Center with the last-ever Discovery crew and our Q&A with several VIPs at the Udvar-Hazy Center were great experiences and gave us a range of insider perspectives on the past and future of manned spaceflight.