A Day at NASA’s Dryden Research Center (#NASASocial)

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.

HL-10 Lifting Body

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.

X-29A

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.

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