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

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?

Doug in an F-18

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.

Crew Transport Vehicle

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.

Domingo’s Restaurant

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.

One thought on “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

  1. It was great having you and the other NASA Socialites attend the #DrydenSocial – I can’t wait to have you all back!

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