NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
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Saluting 100 Years of Innovation at the
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Worthington Industries Congratulates The NASA Langley Research Center on its 100th Anniversary. For over 50 years, Worthington has supported NASA with our COPV development and we look forward to 50 more. Weâ€™re honored to be a part of your storied legacy and your soaring future.
Congratulations to the Langley Team on 100 Years of Chasing Dreams! Sierra Nevada Corporation Salutes the HL-20 Research Leading to Dream ChaserÂŽ Spacecraft
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is building the next-generation, Dream Chaser spacecraft, and is grateful to NASA's Langley Research Center and staff for the HL-20 research that helped to launch and birth our program. That early work done by the talented and dedicated Langley team set the foundation for SNC's Dream Chaser and the concept for a versatile, lifting-body space taxi capable of runway landings. SNC is privileged to continue the legacy and we honor and celebrate the achievements of the hardworking Langley employees. Your innovation is now allowing us to chase our dreams all the way to the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit!
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table of contents CIVIL AERONAUTICS:....................... 6 100 Years of Discovery and Innovation at Langley Research Center By Craig Collins
Military Aeronautics.............. 18 By J.R. Wilson
HIGHER, FASTER, FARTHER....... 30 Expanding Aeronautical Horizons By Craig Collins
THE RACE TO SPACE:.................... 42 Langley Research Center and Project Mercury By Craig Collins
Taking Care of our Rarified Air.......................................52 Langley Scientists at Work By Edward Goldstein
Problem Solving..........................62 By J.R. Wilson
SATELLITES, ROVERS, AND ROBOTS:.....................................72 NASA Langley’s Uncrewed Space Exploration and Science By Craig Collins
PIONEERING SPACE........................ 84 Langley’s Role in Crewed Spaceflight By Craig Collins
Spinoffs...............................................96 NASA Langley research produces wide-ranging benefits By J.R. Wilson
Shaping the Future Of Earth, Air, and Space.....104 By Edward Goldstein
An uncrewed suborbital Mercury capsule test launch in 1961.
Taking off into the
Next 100 Years
An F/A-18 E/F model tested in NASA Langley Research Center’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel.
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NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017 Published by Faircount Media Group 4915 W. Cypress Street Tampa, FL 33607 Tel: 813.639.1900 www.defensemedianetwork.com www.faircount.com EDITORIAL Editor in Chief: Chuck Oldham Managing Editor: Ana E. Lopez Editor: Rhonda Carpenter Contributing Writers: Craig Collins Edward Goldstein, J.R. Wilson DESIGN AND PRODUCTION Art Director: Robin K. McDowall Designer: Daniel Mrgan Ad Traffic Manager: Rebecca Laborde ADVERTISING Ad Sales Manager: Damion Harte Account Executives: Lorri Brown, Brandon Fields Ken Meyer, Robert Panetta, Bonnie Schneider Bryan St.Laurent, Geoffrey Weiss OPERATIONS AND ADMINISTRATION Chief Operating Officer: Lawrence Roberts VP, Business Development: Robin Jobson Business Development: Damion Harte Financial Controller: Robert John Thorne Chief Information Officer: John Madden Business Analytics Manager: Colin Davidson FAIRCOUNT MEDIA GROUP Publisher, North America: Ross Jobson Copyright Faircount LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction of editorial content in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited. Neither Faircount LLC nor NASA assumes responsibility for the advertisements, nor any representation made therein, nor for the quality or deliverability of the products themselves. Reproduction of the articles and photographs, in whole or in part, contained herein is prohibited without written permission of the publisher, with the exception of reprinting for news media use. Permission to use various images and content in this publication was obtained from NASA and U.S. government agencies, and in no way is used to imply an endorsement by any NASA entity for any claims or representations therein. None of the advertising herein implies U.S. government, NASA, or Langley Research Center endorsement of any private entity or enterprise. This is not a publication of NASA or the U.S. government.
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
CIVIL AERONAUTICS: 100 Years of Discovery and Innovation at Langley Research Center By Craig Collins
It’s been more than a century since the Wright brothers invented the first successful airplane, and, like many of history’s most celebrated events, their flights at Kitty Hawk have become shrouded in mythology. Orville and Wilbur Wright were humble sons of a Midwestern clergyman, the myth goes, tinkering bicycle mechanics who became fascinated with flight long before anyone else took it seriously. The truth is actually more interesting. The Wrights were among thousands of people trying to solve the problems of powered heavier-thanair flight around the turn of the 20th century. At the time, some of the Western world’s most prestigious institutions were placing bets on the contestants – including the U.S. military, which granted inventor and Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel P. Langley $50,000 for flight research. The Wrights beat all of these competitors for one simple reason: They had better data. The Wrights were brilliant, meticulous engineers. Their earliest flight experiments failed, in part, because they were relying on a lift coefficient – a ratio of air pressure on a wing to the speed of air moving over it – calculated by an 18th-century Englishman. They decided to start from scratch and do their own calculations, building their own wind tunnel and equipping it with instruments that would measure forces operating on model wings. Beginning in the fall of 1901, they tested more than 200 wing designs in their tunnel and came up with new configurations for their flying machines.
The U.S. government didn’t take much interest in the Wrights’ achievement at first, but World War I made flight research seem much more urgent. Beginning in 1915, Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and set aside 1,650 acres of land in Hampton, Virginia, for an aeronautical research laboratory and airfield. Construction of the first building of what would become known as the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, named for the late aeronautics pioneer, was begun in 1917. From the start, Langley’s aeronautical research program focused largely on aerodynamics, and on doing research the Wright way: that is, using the wind tunnel as a primary instrument of study, and validating wind tunnel data in flight tests at adjacent Langley Field. By 1934, the Langley Laboratory had constructed seven wind tunnels, including the massive 30-by-60foot Full-Scale Tunnel, then the world’s largest. In less than two decades, Langley was home to the greatest aeronautical research capability in the world.
BOEING PHOTO BY JOHN D. PARKER
The world’s first pressurized tunnel, Langley’s Variable Density Tunnel (VDT), became a particularly valuable tool, capable of creating aerodynamic data that could be scaled up to 20 times the size of tunnel models. This allowed the NACA to obtain data for airfoils (lift-inducing aircraft parts such as wings and fins) that simulated full-scale flight conditions. An entire portfolio of airfoils, known as the NACA airfoils, was generated from VDT studies led by Eastman Jacobs, Langley’s brilliant aerodynamicist, and earned the committee a reputation as one of the world’s preeminent aeronautical research institutions. One of Langley’s greatest early contributions to aeronautics came from work done in Lang-
The Boeing ecoDemonstrator 757 flight-test airplane makes a final approach to King County Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, during the Active Flow Control Enhanced Vertical Tail Flight Experiment. Thirty-one sweeping jet actuators were installed on the aircraft’s vertical tail to see whether the size of the vertical tail could be reduced if such a system were used, which would mean greater fuel efficiency.
ley’s 20-foot Propeller Research Tunnel. After World War I, most American planes used air-cooled radial engines, with cylinders arranged around a central crankshaft. In this configuration, exposed cylinders created
considerable drag. The drawbacks associated with heavier liquid-cooled engines, however, were even more significant, especially for the Navy, whose planes had to withstand abrupt landings on aircraft carrier decks. The Navy asked the NACA to look into the possibility of using a circular covering, or cowling, to reduce the drag created by radial engines, while still allowing adequate cooling. The Propeller Research Tunnel, with its 20-foot radius, enabled testing on a full-sized airplane, and Langley technician Fred Weick, after hundreds of tests over a period of three years, produced a cowling that significantly reduced drag and, in directing rapid airflow around the engine’s hottest components,
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Among the first civil aviation beneficiaries of Langley research was the Lockheed Vega Air Express, a civil airliner and the first production aircraft fitted with the NACA cowling.
actually improved cooling. When Weick fitted his cowling around the engine of a Curtiss Hawk AT5A biplane, the result was astonishing: The Hawk’s top speed jumped from 118 to 137 miles per hour, a 16 percent increase. The NACA cowling was a crowning achievement for Langley technicians. It reduced drag by as much as 60 percent and saved the aircraft industry millions of dollars. In 1929, the cowling earned Weick Langley’s first Robert J. Collier trophy, an honor bestowed annually by the National Aeronautics Association for the most significant contributions to aeronautics research.
Safe, Efficient Civil Transport
By 1932, virtually every radial-engine aircraft was equipped with a variant of the NACA cowling. It was one of many innovations in aeronautics that led a growing number of Americans to consider aircraft as a reasonable alternative to other forms of transit. In the wind tunnels and over Langley Field, technicians directed studies of – and suggested improvements in – new models manufactured by companies such as Boeing, Douglas, Martin, and Curtiss. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Jacobs and colleagues perfected what became known as the “laminar flow airfoil” for
propeller-driven planes, wings designed to allow smooth flow over the wing surface, without the trailing-edge turbulence that slowed aircraft at high speeds. The design of World War II’s second-fastest propeller-driven aircraft, the North American P-51 Mustang, became the first aircraft to use Jacobs’ laminarflow airfoil. The NACA’s aeronautics research was transformed by the approach of World War II. In 1940, the committee established two new laboratories. Ames, near San Francisco, was viewed as a West Coast counterpart to Langley, and Lewis (now Glenn), in Cleveland, focused on engine research. The war introduced an era in which the NACA laboratories focused not on advancing aeronautical knowledge overall, but on solving specific problems – a research posture intensified by the Cold War that followed. Langley and other research centers began studying rocketry and high-speed flight, and then the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite
led to the transformation of the NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Langley, Ames and Lewis became Research Centers, an acknowledgement that their investigations would extend beyond atmospheric flight. Langley researchers contributed several important – and life-saving – findings to the aeronautics industry in the latter half of the 20th century. One of the first came after two fatal crashes of the nation’s first large turboprop airliner, the Lockheed L-188 Electra, in 1959 and 1960. Tests in one of Langley’s new generation of transonic wind tunnels – the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT) – established that the Electra’s wings could be stressed to the breaking point by a phenomenon known as “propeller whirl flutter,” an oscillation caused by the outboard engines when the aircraft reached transonic speed. In response, the company redesigned the Electra’s wing. For many aircraft manufacturers, flutter evaluations in the TDT became a requisite step in the development of new aircraft.
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Langley also played a pivotal role in the transition from manual flight controls, such as the yoke and rudder pedals used to steer, and throttle linked directly to the engine, to an electronic “flyby-wire” (FBW) system. In FBW, digital signals move actuators that provide the ordered response – a movement of ailerons or acceleration of an engine, for example. In 1954, flight tests of the first fly-by-wire aircraft, a modified F9F Panther jet, were initiated at Langley. Later, working closely with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong Flight Research Center) in Edwards, California, the first digital fly-by-wire fixed-wing aircraft without a mechanical backup, a modified F-8 Crusader, made its first flight on May 25, 1972. Digital fly-by-wire is currently used in a variety of aircraft ranging from F/A-18 fighters to the Boeing 777. Electronic displays and onboard computers were among many technological components
evaluated aboard Langley’s “Flying Laboratory,” a Boeing 737 that entered service in 1974. Over 20 years of service life, the Flying Laboratory provided real-world demonstrations of new technologies, including some of the first airborne evaluations of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network. One of the most important Langley contributions to be achieved through 737 flight tests was the development of an airborne system to detect wind shear – a sudden microburst or downdraft, associated with thunderstorms, that could prove powerful enough to slam a plane into the ground during takeoff or landing. More than 540 airline passengers were killed from 1964 through 1994 in wind shear accidents. Langley researchers teamed up with partners from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry to characterize wind shear threat to particular aircraft. The team developed remote-sensing technology that provided accurate wind shear detection, and easily readable cockpit displays that enabled rapid pilot response to a wind shear threat. Five separate wind shear detection technologies were tested aboard the Flying Laboratory. With an FAA standard now in place for airborne wind shear sensors, the accidents that once killed so many rarely happen. Another thunderstorm-related aircraft hazard, lightning, was evaluated during Langley’s Storm Hazards Research Program, conducted from 19791986. Langley test pilots, in an F-106 interceptor modified – “lightning hardened” – to fly directly into thunderstorms, flew into nearly 1,500 storms over the course of the program, absorbing a total of 714 lightning strikes. During one flight over North Carolina, the plane set a record for the most strikes in one flight: 72. Today’s existing lightning-protection standards, for both aircraft structures and instrumentation, were born from this study. Other important Langley contributions during the 20th century included: • Studies of water buildup on airport runways that resulted in today’s grooved surfaces hydroplaning prevention, and the development
In a Langley-directed study, an F-106 aircraft flies through thunderstorm clouds to measure the effects of lightning on electronic controls.
of an International Runway Friction Index used to assess runway safety in winter. • Wind tunnel tests that led to a better understanding of how the loudest airframe components – the flaps, slats, and landing gear – generate noise, and the development of noise prediction tools that helped manufacturers design quieter aircraft. • Evaluations, both in flight tests and in the 20-foot Spin Tunnel, of a spin-resistant wing that led to much safer small private planes. • Evaluation and testing of non-invasive imaging technology to scan older aircraft for structural fatigue.
NASA Langley Research Center’s 737 “Flying Laboratory” flighttested sensors to give advance warning of wind shear, a hazard that had claimed more than 540 lives over 30 years before the technologies were introduced.
• With industry partners, further development of flyby-wire concepts into the “glass cockpit,” featuring digital displays rather than traditional dials and gauges. Langley pioneered the glass cockpit in ground simulators and aboard demonstration flights of the 737 Flying Laboratory; based on that
work, and an enthusiastic response from industry, Boeing began to develop the first glass cockpits for airliners. By the end of the 1990s, flat-panel displays were increasingly favored among aircraft manufacturers, and the glass cockpit has become standard aboard commercial airliners and business jets. Next-Generation Systems
It was 1980 when the fresh college graduate George Finelli, today’s head of Langley’s Aeronautics Research Directorate, came to work for the center. At the time, the challenges being worked out around the glass
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
cockpit had more to do with computing than with displays. “It was interesting,” said Finelli. “From the ’80s into the ’90s, computing technology was expanding. 757s and 767s were the newest airplanes when I started working at Langley, and they had a lot of computers, but they were all segregated – they were designed not to interfere with each other, because at the time everything coming in was new, and the FAA was still learning what it meant to integrate digital systems into the operation of the airplane.” It may be an understatement to say it’s a different story today. “By the time the 777 came along in the mid-’90s,” Finelli said, “the paradigm had shifted. There was a central flight management computer, with triply redundant software. The work here at Langley has had a lot to do with the community being able to move to that kind of computing paradigm – and technology has changed a lot more since then.” In the fourth decade of his career, Finelli said he’s now witnessing another paradigm shift.
“I really believe aviation is on a precipice of change,” he said. It isn’t just the onboard systems that are becoming more integrated; aircrew systems are increasingly connected to a larger network that extends upward to navigation satellites, downward to air traffic control systems, and across the sky to other aircraft. At the same time, networking technologies are enabling the number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) in U.S. skies to grow exponentially. In March 2017, the FAA announced that more than 770,000 drone registrations had been filed in the previous 15 months. According to Finelli, this technological surge has changed the way NASA thinks about U.S. airspace. In the old days of the NACA, he said, Langley’s research was focused on airplanes; the unofficial catchphrase was, “Higher, Faster, Farther.” Today, researchers are investigating ways to expand the availability and efficiency of commercial flight. The unofficial catchphrase
is now “Anybody, Anywhere, Anytime.” “I think the technologies are flowing together,” Finelli said. “Things like autonomy, new ways to power small vehicles, and the new kinds of materials we can build things out of are enabling us to start talking about anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Efficiency and safety are the key concerns for an air transport system that relies on interconnected networks while its passenger and cargo loads continue to increase. Langley researchers have been at the forefront of developing technologies to assure safe and efficient operations of aircraft, both independently and as components of a national airspace that’s in a state of continuous transformation. One of the technologies in development at Langley, for example, is synthetic vision: software and systems that can help visualize external environments that are obscured, either by weather or by the flight deck configuration. Using geospatial data collected by the space shuttle program, researchers in Langley’s Crew Systems and Aviation Operations Branch have developed three-dimensional images of the Earth’s terrain. “We ended up getting it down to a meter – for every square meter, we had an elevation point,” said Kyle Ellis, a research engineer in the Branch.
A flight crew evaluates advanced cockpit vision system technologies in a full-motion simulator.
“And with that database we could actually draw up synthetic terrain, like a computer does for Microsoft Flight Simulator.” In its purest form, a synthetic vision system would take the place of a windshield and present an aircrew with an image of the outside world. Because it’s a static technology, however – “It won’t see deer on the runway, or another airplane out there, unless you give it some other information,” Ellis said – it’s usually used in combination with sensory systems, such as radar or infrared, to provide enhanced vision of the dynamic exterior world. “Langley has done a lot of research in combined vision displays,” said Ellis. “Right now FedEx’s whole fleet is equipped with enhanced flight vision systems. They’re able to go out and to fly into runways that other conventional aircraft can’t,
Langley’s “Greased Lightning” demonstrator in vertical flight. The experimental, battery-powered drone, originally designed to prove concepts that could scale up to a diesel-electric single-passenger vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, is being used as a testbed to assess unmanned aircraft systems technology. because they can see the runway environment.” Aside from the obvious safety benefit, enhanced vision saves FedEx and other carriers time – and money – that would otherwise be spent dealing with delays. In February 2017, a research team involving investigators from Langley and Ames, along with Boeing, Honeywell, and United Airlines, successfully tested a new cockpit-based air
traffic management tool, known as Flight Deck Interval Management (FIM). The prototype hardware/software system is designed to provide pilots with precise, up-to-the-second spacing information on approach into a busy airport, allowing more planes to land safely in a given period of time. When rolled out commercially, FIM promises to save fuel, reduce emissions, and get more passengers to their destinations on schedule. A Langley/industry team recently developed a tool that builds on the capabilities of FIM to help flight crews determine the most efficient flight paths to their destinations. The Traffic Aware Planner (TAP) analyzes the current airspace and prompts flight crews to request a route change. The Langley team shared NASA’s 2016 Software of the Year Award.
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TAP is still in the developmental stages, but it’s one in a new suite of tools that Ellis said will “open up a whole new era for these airline industries to say, ‘We really are weather immune now. We don’t have to divert this airplane and essentially pay for all these passengers to be delayed.’ These systems will have a huge economic impact and a big safety impact.”
The Aircraft of the Future
According to the FAA, U.S. airlines, which serve more than 750 million passengers every year, will serve a billion annually by 2029. Worldwide, NASA estimates about 3.6 billion passengers fly on commercial airliners – a number
Langley’s work with high aspect ratio airfoils has been crucial to the development of the X-57, an allelectric research aircraft designed for high-efficiency flight.
expected to double by the mid2030s. Such enormous growth will require a generation of aircraft that achieve reductions in fuel use, emissions, and noise that go far beyond what can be achieved with today’s technologies. Langley researchers play a significant role in NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technology (AATT) Project, aimed at ambitious “stretch” goals to be achieved over the next two decades: a 60
percent reduction in fuel/energy consumption (over the best 2005 aircraft); an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions; and a cumulative 52-decibel noise reduction below the current FAA stage 4 noise standard. Langley’s work in evaluating AATT concept aircraft is in many ways an echo of its early days in pioneering the NACA airfoils of the 1930s and 1940s: Models of planes conceptualized by industrial and academic teams are evaluated at Langley using what Finelli refers to as the “threelegged stool” of aeronautics research: computational modeling, wind tunnel testing, and flight testing. In particular, Finelli said, Langley has been a key contributor to the design and evaluation of two airframe features that
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could result in dramatic reductions in drag – and corresponding improvements in efficiency: The high aspect ratio wing. Basically long skinny wings, like those of albatrosses, convey the major advantage of creating less drag – but corresponding disadvantages in strength, maneuverability, and the aeroelastic “flutter” that Langley technicians first investigated in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel in the 1960s. Langley researchers are working with industry partners to strengthen high aspect ratio wings to an extent that allows them to be of practical use, and the TDT remains an important tool for examining flutter. Langley’s work in high aspect ratio airfoils has been crucial in the design of the all-electric research plane known as the X-57 and nicknamed “Maxwell.” Maxwell features a long, thin wing embedded with 14 electric motors: 12 on the leading edge, to increase lift during takeoffs and landings, and two larger ones at the wing tips to propel the plane at cruising altitude. Laminar flow control. Considered a kind of Holy Grail for aerodynamicists, laminar flow control, as Jacobs demonstrated decades ago, can be passively achieved by reconfiguring an airfoil. Langley researchers originated the concept of active laminar flow – directing airflow over a boundary layer to “catch” and redirect potential turbulence. In 2015, an active flowcontrol system – 31 small jet actuators, mounted on the tail and rudder of the Boeing 757 ecoDemonstrator – was evaluated in a series of flight tests, confirming wind tunnel
tests suggesting aircraft manufacturers could, in future aircraft designs, shrink the size of tail structures, and reduce drag, using this technology. The ecoDemonstrator also flight-tested a technology developed by Langley for NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) program: nonstick wing coatings to reduce the number of dead insects that pile up on leading edges, a major contributor to accumulated drag. So far, the best bug-proof coating developed by Langley has reduced the buildup of dead bugs by about 40 percent. NASA forecasts that debugging aircraft wings and improving laminar flow could improve fuel efficiency by 1 percent. That sounds trivial, until it’s converted to dollars; at today’s fuel prices, that’s more than $300 million in annual savings. Impressive as these new technologies are, none by itself gets us to flight by anybody, anywhere, anytime. In the current hub-and-spoke paradigm, maximum efficiency is achieved by cramming as many passengers as possible onto huge planes that land on huge runways at huge airports. But the paradigm is changing, as visionaries plot out a future that maximizes the use of “thin-haul” routes, where there aren’t enough passengers to justify the use of a massive airliner. Langley Research Center has developed a concept aircraft, the GL-10 Greased Lightning, that won’t need a runway at all. Designed to be a diesel-electric tilt-wing craft at full scale, it’s now a half-scale unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology demonstrator powered by an electric battery. It can fly
vertically and horizontally – in other words, it’s an unmanned craft that can take off and land from your back yard, without blowing off your roof shingles. The GL-10 was designed with a view toward the thinnest of hauls – packages or one passenger – for the era NASA’s visionaries see on the horizon: On-demand flight by anybody, anywhere, anytime. Of course, while many unmanned vehicles fly today, none is pilotless – all UAVs are required to maintain a link with a pilot on the ground. The technology required to make something like the GL-10 into a truly autonomous craft, capable of transporting passengers on its own, is still in its early stages. “My worst-case scenario,” said Ellis, “is wondering: If my grandma had to fly to my house for Thanksgiving dinner in a vehicle like that, are the systems on board to make sure she’s, one, going to get here safely, and two, not going to harm anybody on the way? What safety mechanisms need to be in place to make sure she can do that?” Nobody has the complete answer to that question yet, but Langley researchers are building toward it – designing and testing, for example, detect-and-avoid algorithms that will help program an autonomous craft’s ability to sense and evade danger. “If you look at the last hundred years,” said Finelli, “you’ll see Langley’s been at the forefront of envisioning the future of flight. And we think we’re well positioned to influence the next hundred years. We want to push the boundaries, bring in new technologies, and really transform air transportation for the general public.”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Military Aeronautics By J.R. Wilson
The lab – renamed Langley Research Center with NASA’s formation in 1958, replacing the NACA – was, from the beginning, designed to explore airframe and propulsion engine design and performance to help the United States aviation industry, including its fledgling entry into military aircraft development. From 1917 into the 21st century, just about every U.S. military aircraft went through Langley at some point, either in initial design or to resolve problems encountered in flight-testing and operations. “The NACA basically was formed and the military bought the land the lab was placed on. No other location at the time had the wind tunnels and other research capability located at Langley, which attracted the military,” Joseph Chambers, a retired Langley aeronautics research manager and author of a book on Langley’s contributions to U.S. military aircraft of the 1990s, said. “In its early decades, Langley had a great deal of interaction with the military, especially the Navy, with the NACA headquarters located in the same building and floor as the Navy Department in Washington. That led to a very tight relationship, both with the Navy at Langley and Langley researchers
going to Navy facilities. In the 1930s, the Army established a liaison office at Langley so they could be closer.” “The nation had invested in unique facilities at Langley and people with expertise operating those. And they gained experience and grew in place while military facilities had constant turnover as military leaders and personnel moved on, taking their knowledge with them,” he said. In pursuit of its goal to “solve the fundamental problems of flight,” state-of-the-art wind tunnels and supporting infrastructure were built to find unique solutions to the rapidly evolving realm of aviation. Those included wing shapes still used in airplane designs today; better propellers; engine cowlings; all-metal airplanes; new kinds of rotorcraft and helicopters; supersonic, transonic and hypersonic flight – all part of the legacy of Langley’s historic aeronautical advances in its first half-century. In later decades, Langley researchers achieved breakthroughs in wind shear and lightning protection, digital control systems, glass cockpits, new kinds of composite materials, supercritical wings, and hybrid wing bodies. Much of its success was
Although the Wright brothers earned the United States credit for the first powered, manned heavier-than-air flight in 1903, when the U.S. entered World War I a decade later, it was far behind the European nations in the development of military aviation. It was a report to that effect that led President Woodrow Wilson to order creation of the nation’s first civilian government facility dedicated to aviation research and development (R&D) – the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory – under the new National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
A P-51 Mustang in the Full Scale Tunnel at what was then called Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. The P-51’s laminar flow wings, which gave it such superlative performance, were a product of Langley research.
due to a long line of unique wind tunnels that have made Langley a world leader in aeronautical design analysis since the 1920s. In the years leading up to World War II, the NACA followed a fundamental research mission that included experiments with a wide range of unusual concepts, from airplanes with 12 propellers on each wing to a saucer-like “flying flapjack.” The day World War II began, its mission changed dramatically to support specific military interests. It became 911 calls rather than fundamental research, which was resumed after the war.
The list of Langley’s contributions since its inception is long and helped take the United States to a dominant position in military aviation by the end of World War II. Some of the highlights, starting in the 1920s, include: The development of airfoils “That was the first application of compressed air to wind tunnel testing, with more accurate results than any other wind tunnels. Langley began a progression of research tactics, doing a complete matrix of testing in those facilities, making adjustments to airfoil shapes, that were employed
Above: A Curtiss AT-5A advanced trainer variant of the P-1 Hawk pursuit plane with an NACA cowling installed. The cowling minimized drag but retained cooling for radial engines, and improved the performance of both military and civilian aircraft. Left: By the 1950s and 1960s, designs for supersonic military aircraft incorporated wings that were swept back or could vary their sweep, as shown in this multiple exposure photograph. Langley researchers conducted tests in multiple wind tunnels on variable sweep models like one for a Navy combat air patrol mission.
to design World War II military aircraft,” Chambers said. Laminar flow airfoil “They developed a unique laminar flow airfoil designed to have minimum drag at optimum
conditions. The first operational application of that was the [World War II] P-51 Mustang, which gave it higher speed capability than other aircraft in combat.” Engine cowlings “The Navy preferred radial flow rather than liquid-cooled [engines], which led to very large engines. Langley developed a way to enclose radial engines with cowlings that minimized air resistance with continued cooling. That shaped all future propeller-driven aircraft development and was the recipient of Langley’s first Collier Trophy.” Most efficient engine shape and location “This led to DC-3s and all subsequent aircraft having their engines in the same vertical location
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as the wing, as opposed to underslung or above the wing.” Aircraft spinning “An area where contributions continue to this day for the military is spinning, which is a very complex thing to analyze from an aerodynamic perspective. Langley developed a free-flying technique in a wind tunnel, beginning in 1935, with the first of two spin tunnels that have been continuously operational since then. Every U.S.
The Douglas D-558-2 research aircraft is launched from the NACA’s Navy P2B-1S. The D-558 was designed with swept wings developed from the theories of Langley’s Robert T. Jones as well as captured German sweptwing documents. It was the first aircraft to reach Mach 2.
military aircraft in production was tested in that wind tunnel. When aircraft go into the fleet and some configuration change happens, the military typically returns to the Langley spin tunnel to see what those changes will mean.” Vertical takeoff and landing “In the 1950s, as we returned to more fundamental efforts, Langley had time to explore some revolutionary concepts, especially vertical takeoff and landing.
Langley played an important role in the development of vertical flight. The Ling-TemcoVought XC-142A was a tilt-wing prototype used in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) studies. Langley was extensively involved in wind-tunnel testing of XC-142A models, and in the flight evaluations of the actual airplane.
Helicopters became a major research area at Langley. Langley also developed the concept of individual flying platforms in the 1950s.” Variable wing sweep “In the 1960s, variable wing sweep came out of Langley, which has been applied to numerous military aircraft. At the end of World War II, as we overran German scientific facilities, we found they were about to go to flight with an aircraft that had wings that could be repositioned on the ground before flying. That was brought back to the U.S. and Bell Aircraft built
the X-5 [in 1951] as the first continuous variable sweep aircraft. Unfortunately, that changes the inherent stability of the aircraft dramatically, to totally non-maneuverable with the wings swept aft. To maintain adequate levels of maneuverability, the wings had to be moved forward, which required massive equipment inside the aircraft. The Air Force was not impressed and the effort was cancelled.” Nevertheless, the NACA and its successor, NASA, were research organizations allowed to continue work on technology that was not immediately applicable because other breakthrough technologies were needed. In the case of variable sweep, Langley engineers came up with the idea of creating a double pivot configuration that eliminated the stability issue. It was adopted by the Air Force for the F-111 and the B-1 bomber and the F-14 for the Navy. Externally blown flap It allowed lower-speed handling and reduced landing and takeoff space. Langley researchers came up with the idea of rotating engine cells
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
nose-down so the exhaust would blow over the trailing edge of the wing, thus augmenting lift. Model tests at Langley demonstrated the capability in the 1950s using turbojet engines, which had high heat exhaust and high velocity, which was not acceptable for the trailing edge. But Langley continued to work on
NASA Langley researchers used the High Angle-of-Attack (Alpha) Research Vehicle (HARV) to test new technologies, including thrust vectoring, from 19871996. The modified F-18 Hornet is now in NASA Langleyâ€™s official visitor center, the Virginia Air & Space Center, in downtown Hampton, Virginia.
it despite industry disinterest. The development of turbofan engines had lower airflow and heat and the concept was successfully applied to the Air Force C-17 in the late 1970s.â€? Another aviation breakthrough in which Langley played a key role was enabling aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound. Following
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World War II, Langley conducted unique wind tunnel research on transonic designs, aerodynamics and propulsion that helped lead to Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager’s historic October 1947 supersonic flight in the rocket-engine-powered Bell X-1. That first breaking of the sound barrier by a manned aircraft paved the way for later generations of supersonic military aircraft. Environmental concerns and economic constraints limited commercial application of supersonic flight to only one aircraft – the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, a British-French supersonic passenger jet that operated from 1969 until 2003. It
In 1994, testing in the 20Foot Spin Tunnel at Langley helped determine spin-recovery parachute requirements for the F-22 fighter jet.
had a maximum speed of Mach 2.04 – restricted to over-ocean use only – and carried up to 128 passengers. Langley, meanwhile, pushed the aerial speed limit even further with wind tunnel and flight tests that led to the X-15, which flew from 1958 to 1968 and set the winged manned aircraft speed record of Mach 6.7 (about 4,500 mph). The center continued to research
propulsion, thermal and structural integration issues on a number of largely military hypersonics programs through the end of the century, including the National Aerospace Plane (NASP); Hyper-X, which included the Air Force X-43; the Air Force X-51 Waverider and the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) Program, which explored fundamental technologies supporting practical hypersonic flight. “We flew the X-43 in 2004, then the agency [NASA] decided to stop building hypersonic X-planes, so we turned a lot of that research over to the DOD. Langley was involved later with
helping the Air Force resolve problems they had with the follow-on X-51,” noted Walt Engelund, Director of Space Technology & Exploration at Langley. The ability of a research organization to persist in developing a concept, even without much interest from industry or government, became a hallmark of Langley’s aeronautical programs, in large part because NASA does not design aircraft, but rather produces information that can be used by aircraft designers. For example, in 1954, Langley engineer Richard Whitcomb was awarded the Collier Trophy for developing the transonic area rule to minimize drag, pushing aircraft more easily through the speed of sound by minimizing the platform’s total cross-section. “The idea is to remove some of the area from the fuselage while adding area from the wing to smooth the shape. The F-102, in the design stage, had wind tunnel results at Langley showing the aircraft could not go through Mach 1. The Air Force told General Dynamics [the contractor] to apply Whitcomb’s area rule and wind tunnel tests showed it could then exceed the speed of sound while climbing,” Chambers said. Other areas in which Langley played a major role include the development of thrust vectoring, used on the F-22; the design for supersonic cruising without afterburners; advanced composites, which led to tremendous weight savings on large aircraft such as the C-17; the use of grooved runways to improve drainage and reduce landing gear problems, which led to today’s grooved highways and automotive anti-hydroplaning efforts; and hybrid or blended-
wing aircraft resembling a manta ray to reduce noise, conserve fuel and potentially reduce operating costs. Joint research with DOD and industry also led to encouraging results for alternate aircraft fuels. “In the 1960s to ’80s, Langley was involved very closely to what the Navy and Air Force were doing in aircraft development. NASA participated in the response stages of design, reviewing proposals for some aircraft and even proposing tests, such as during the selection process that led to the F-15, long before the aircraft configuration was finalized, then continuing that support once the final design entered the fleet,” Chambers said. “When the Air Force decided to go with the F-15, the Secretary of Defense contacted NASA Headquarters and asked for an in-house design team to incorporate the latest technology into some candidate designs to send to industry. Industry teams were briefed and that resulted in six different designs, such as two-dimensional inlets, variable sweep wings, etc. So NASA’s vision of what might be possible had big payoffs on future military aircraft designs.” While many of Langley’s contributions are well known, others were classified. “From 1970 through the turn of the century, Langley facilities and expertise were part of many classified programs; some of those tests are still classified,” Chambers recalled. “Langley staff went out to development sites as independent assessors and our facilities were treated for classified testing. Industry would come in, run their tests, then take the data home with them.”
“Generally, Langley had continued military aircraft research, both fundamental configuration studies and intense peer-to-peer interest, until the mid-90s. At the end of the 1990s, we looked at emerging technologies and how those might benefit new aircraft designs. That included unmanned combat vehicles in the early 1990s and what benefits they might bring by removing the human pilot, looking at structures, weight, etc.,” he said. Targeted military research still goes on frequently at Langley. NASA Langley has improved military helicopter crashworthiness starting in the 1970s with a number of tests, including the qualification of wire strike protection systems for military helicopters such as the AH-1 Cobra. Military rotorcraft crash tests have continued into the 21st century on helicopters like former U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knights tested with Army crash test dummies in 2013 and 2014. In recent years, the U.S. military and military aircraft manufacturers have also used NASA Langley wind tunnels to advance rotorcraft performance and test innovative hybrid wing/blended wing body aircraft concepts for possible use as future military cargo planes. “The ability to forecast what changes will do is very important. The military wants answers today for its current aircraft. A research organization is looking at future aircraft. In terms of the 100-year history of Langley’s work on military aircraft, the vast majority was during the first 85 years, with the 1970s the most active.”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
HIGHER, FASTER, FARTHER
Expanding Aeronautical Horizons By Craig Collins
In the early 1940s, as manufacturers began to produce aircraft that could travel several hundred miles per hour, the main challenge to high-speed flight was related to “compressibility effects:” Air flowed over airfoils and other surfaces at speeds faster than the aircraft’s velocity. At lower speeds, this wasn’t a problem, but when airflows reached “transonic” speeds, near and beyond the speed of sound, they created shock waves, which tended to proliferate until they hammered at the aircraft, creating drag and threatening stability. Because of these
effects, the fastest World War II-era aircraft had difficulty flying much faster than 500 mph. Some engineers began to believe the “sound barrier” presented an insurmountable obstacle, an invisible wall in the sky. But this idea didn’t last long. Langley engineer Robert T. Jones, in 1945, independently developed the idea of the “swept wing” – commonly seen on jet fighters today – as a way to counter compressibility effects by deflecting the angle of the shock wave. Jones’ revolutionary idea didn’t get much attention at first, but
Getting an airplane to fly faster had been a preoccupation for engineers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from the moment flight research began there, but it wasn’t until World War II that aircraft speed became a matter of life and death. The war produced the world’s first jet-propelled aircraft, and though these jet fighters proved not quite ready to play a major role in battle, they were clearly the aircraft of the future. Langley engineers redoubled their efforts to evaluate materials, structures, configurations, and controls to enable aircraft to fly at ever-faster speeds.
The Bell X-1 – the type of aircraft that broke the sound barrier in 1947.
it would later become a key development in achieving and maintaining supersonic flight. Because a precise knowledge of the speed of sound was so important to solving the problems of high-speed flight, it became a particular focus for NACA engineers in the 1940s – particularly Langley’s John Stack, who had begun studying the problems of high-speed flight at the laboratory during the 1920s, and had been among the first to quantify the effects of compressibility. With Hugh Dryden (who would become director of the NACA’s aeronautical research in 1946), Stack also established an “industry standard” speed of sound, rounded off at 1,117 feet per second, or 761 mph, at sea level. At cruising altitudes of 35,000 feet and higher, the speed of sound is around 660 mph. In the early 1940s, Langley investigators devised ways of achieving pressure distributions at Mach
1 – essentially, the speed of sound – in transonic wind tunnel tests, but researchers who attempted these speeds in larger-scale tunnels encountered a phenomenon known as “choking” – shock wave interference generated by the walls of the tunnels themselves, which caused the flow field to break down and skewed test results. Stack was convinced, for the time being, that the only way to evaluate the aerodynamics of transonic flight was to build a real, full-scale airplane capable of achieving supersonic speeds. By summer 1943, a team led by Stack had produced a preliminary design for a turbojet powered “X-plane” that would take off and land under its own power. The NACA, however, didn’t have the money to build such a plane, and the Army – which did – came up with a different design: a rocket-powered plane that would be launched from the air. In 1944,
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A B-29 “mother ship” with a Bell X-1 tucked up into its belly. The X-1s and most NACA and NASA research aircraft to follow were carried aloft by B-29, and later, B-52 aircraft.
Langley investigators began devising ways to acquire transonic aerodynamic data for this plane: dropping winged bomb-like bodies from an altitude of 30,000 feet; measuring supersonic flow over a scale model wing mounted to the wing of a P-51D Mustang in a steep dive; and small-scale test runs in Langley’s Annular Transonic Tunnel, which was essentially a whirling arm with a model attached. The data from these methods, along with the compressibility data gathered by the NACA in the previous two decades, formed the basis for the design of the Army’s X-1 aircraft by Bell Aircraft Corporation. On the morning of Oct. 14, 1947, the bullet-shaped Bell X-1, piloted by Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager, dropped from the modified bomb bay of a vintage B-29 Superfortress and took off like a shot over the Mojave Desert. Yeager’s first flight of the day achieved a velocity of 700 mph, or Mach 1.06 – the first aircraft to break the sound barrier. While the X-1 produced shock waves that generated a signature “sonic boom” in the skies over the desert, Yeager’s flight was smooth, without the turbulence or loss of control that had worried some engineers. The X-1 would reach a speed of nearly 1,000 mph by 1948. The Air Force had wanted to keep Yeager’s flight – and several ensuing X-1 flights beyond the
sound barrier – a secret, but it was headline news within a couple of months. In December 1948, President Harry S. Truman presented the 37th Collier Trophy to three men: Lawrence D. Bell, the manufacturer; Yeager, the pilot; and Stack, the pioneering engineer at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, for “the greatest aeronautical achievement since the original flight of the Wright brothers’ airplane.” The Area Rule and Supersonic Flight
The X-1 comprised one of the most impressive technological breakthroughs of the 20th century – but as an aircraft, it didn’t have much practical use. It was essentially a rocket with wings, dropped from the belly of an airplane, that glided to a landing after its engine burned out. At Langley, Stack and his engineers continued to investigate practical applications for supersonic flight, which could become generally useful if it were achieved by a jet-powered
aircraft capable of taking off and landing on its own. By the time of the X-1’s first flight, a team led by Stack and physicist Ray H. Wright had nearly solved the problem of how to get transonic wind tunnel data. Wright had figured out that the placement of ventilation slots along the walls of the tunnel’s test section, parallel to air flow, would channel the air around a test subject and allow the gathering of valuable transonic research data. Langley’s 8-Foot and 16-Foot High Speed Tunnels were promptly remodeled to integrate Wright’s discovery, and the “slotted throat” innovation, made public in the early 1950s, was so important to the continued research of transonic flight that the team was awarded the 1951 Collier Trophy “for the conception, development, and practical application of the transonic wind tunnel throat.” In these newly modified highspeed tunnels, it was becoming clearer why aircraft with conventional wing and fuselage designs were experiencing a
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
sudden spike in drag at around 500 mph: As they approached the speed of sound, two different shock waves built up, on the fuselage and on the trailing edge of the wing. This was a particular problem for aircraft manufacturer Convair, which was attempting to build the nation’s first supersonic interceptor, the
YF-102 Delta Dagger: pilots couldn’t get the aircraft past the sound barrier. The next great supersonic innovation to come out of Langley was conceived by Richard T. Whitcomb, the young aeronautical engineer who’d joined the laboratory in 1943 and would soon become known as “the man
who could see air.” Convair’s design for the Delta Dagger was a conventional thick, bullet-shaped aircraft with delta wings and tail. After studying the wind tunnel data and the shape of the aircraft for some time, Whitcomb intuitively grasped the solution: a conventional wing/fuselage combination featured a sudden increase in the cross-sectional area where the wing met the fuselage. But if the fuselage were narrowed a bit in the region of the wing, the air displacement, and resulting drag, would be much reduced. Whitcomb modified wind tunnel models with a concave taper to the fuselage where the wings attached – a feature that became known as the “wasp waist” or “Coke bottle” effect. Data promptly validated what became known as Whitcomb’s “area rule,” and Convair’s modified aircraft, the YF-102A Delta Dagger, would achieve a speed of Mach 1.22. The taper would feature in the design of virtually every supersonic craft manufactured afterward, and Whitcomb would receive the 1954 Collier Trophy for “discovery and experimental verification of the
Top left: Langley’s John Stack, head of the Compressibility Research Division, was among the first to quantify the effects of compressibility. Bottom left: Richard T. Whitcomb with a wind tunnel model showing the characteristic “Coke bottle” shape of area rule.
A YF-102 (left), which was unable to break the sound barrier, and YF-102A (right) with area rule shaping of the mid fuselage, new intakes, and other refinements to the design. The YF-102A exceeded Mach 1.22. area rule, a contribution to base knowledge yielding significantly higher airplane speed and greater range with the same power.” From 1940 to 1955, Langley researchers played a crucial role in increasing aircraft speed from hundreds to thousands of miles per hour. In 1947, the 11-inch Hypersonic Tunnel, the first of its kind in the United States, began operations at Langley. In 1951, another hypersonic facility, the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, came online, allowing researchers to study pressurized air released in bursts that simulated speeds up to Mach 8. By the early 1950s, military and NACA researchers had begun discussing ideas for a hypersonic research plane, and the joint project
that eventually emerged from this, the X-15, first flew in June 1959, after NASA had been established and Langley had become the Langley Research Center. Three rocket-powered, piloted X-15s – the world’s first actual “spaceplanes” – flew a total of 199 missions between 1959 and 1968, achieving a top speed of Mach 6.72 (4,520 mph, fast enough that aerodynamic heating, far in excess of engineers’ estimates, partially melted the plane’s tail), and an altitude of 354,330 feet – 67 miles above the Earth, 5 miles beyond the “Kármán line” marking the boundary of outer space. Practical Supersonic and Hypersonic Aircraft
The X-15 project was one of the most successful aeronautical research programs ever undertaken, and the lessons learned from it proved most immediately applicable to NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. Until the Space Shuttle Columbia’s first orbital flight in 1981, no winged aircraft flew higher. Meanwhile, Langley’s aeronautical researchers continued looking for practical
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
solutions to problems related to transonic and supersonic flight. One of these problems was the drag created by supersonic airflow around the wing of an aircraft traveling at high subsonic speeds. The resulting drag made traveling at these speeds cripplingly inefficient. The man to solve this problem – again, using intuition first and data later – was Whitcomb, who made a physical wing design out of body putty, bulking up some areas of the wing while thinning others. The result was a wing cross-section that was nearly flat on top and rounded on the bottom, with a downward-curving trailing edge. The wing’s design reduced the strength of shock waves. Designed to operate far above a wing’s critical Mach number, Whitcomb’s wing became known as the “supercritical airfoil.” In 1971 and 1973, test flights at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California (now the Armstrong Flight Research Center), increased the efficiency and range of transonic flight for a Vought F-8 Crusader and a General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. For his innovation, Whitcomb was awarded the 1974 Wright
Left: An X-15 in flight. The X-15 flew beyond Mach 6 and regularly ventured beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Below left: Langley engineers have tested a variety of supersonic passenger jet concepts in wind tunnels over the last 70 years. This model is the Supersonic Commercial Transport SCAT-15F being tested in the Langley FullScale Tunnel in 1965.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NASA
Above: NASA’s TF-8A supercritical wing testbed. Another Richard Whitcomb development, the supercritical wing is now used on virtually every commercial jet transport aircraft flying. Right: NASA’s Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration used a Northrop F-5E with a modified fuselage to demonstrate that an aircraft’s shock wave and accompanying sonic boom could be reduced. Brothers Memorial Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association. Breakthroughs in high-speed aeronautics prompted President John F. Kennedy, in June 1963, to issue a challenge to the U.S. government, which he said “should immediately commence a new program in partnership with private industry to develop at the earliest practical date the prototype of a commercially successful supersonic transport …” NASA Langley had been working on its own experimental technologies, since 1959, as part of its Supersonic Commercial Air Transport Program (SCAT), and two companies responded to the president’s challenge by proposing to build a prototype supersonic transport (SST). Langley researchers worked with Boeing, the winning bidder, in evaluations of its design, but the American SST never made it off the ground, mostly due to two major problems that made it commercially unviable: First, the sonic boom would rattle windows for miles around as it flew, and not many communities were willing to grant landing rights for the aircraft – one of the factors that made it difficult for the world’s first supersonic airliner, the Mach 2 French-British Concorde, to turn a profit in its 27 years of operation from 1976 to 2003.
Second, the nitrogen oxides in the SST’s exhaust posed a serious environmental threat. The American SST program was canceled in 1971. For the next three decades, Langley investigators continued to work with industry partners on research into supersonic civil transport, but noise and environmental concerns have – until recently – kept supersonic transport something of a back-burner project. NASA Langley has played key roles in two 21st-century projects that have revived interest in high-speed
HIGH-SPEED FLIGHT: TERMS Strictly speaking, an aircraft’s Mach number, named for Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, represents the ratio of the airflow past a boundary (i.e., a wing or fuselage) to the local speed of sound, which varies according to environmental factors such as pressure and altitude. When an aircraft is said to have reached Mach 1, that means the airflow over its wings and/or other surfaces is equal to the local speed of sound. At Mach 2, this ratio is twice the speed of sound. The velocity of the aircraft itself is slightly lower than this number. As research into high-speed flight has matured, the following terms have been devised to denote ranges of velocity: • Subsonic: speeds less than Mach 0.8, or 614 miles per hour • Transonic: speeds approaching and surpassing the speed of sound, from Mach 0.8 to Mach 1.2, or 614 to 921 mph • Supersonic: speeds between Mach 1.2 and Mach 5, from 921 to 3,836 mph • Hypersonic: beyond Mach 5
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flight. In 2003, investigators from Langley and Dryden explored ways to dampen or “shape” a sonic boom by modifying an aircraft’s fuselage. A modified Northrop F-5E demonstrated that the shock wave and accompanying sonic boom could be altered and reduced. On the heels of the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration, as part of NASA’s New Aviation Horizons Initiative, the agency announced in February 2016 that it would partner with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics on a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). NASA will share that design with manufacturers in a competition
The world’s fastest air-breathing engine, the X-43A, was tested in NASA Langley’s 8-Foot High Temperature Tunnel.
to build a prototype for a Low Boom Flight Demonstration that will evaluate how well quiet sonic boom technology performs. As the Shaped Sonic Boom was being demonstrated in California, another LangleyDryden collaboration was reaching fruition: the Hyper-X program, a seven-year effort to explore alternatives to rocket
power for a new hypersonic spaceplane. Erik Axdahl, a research engineer in Langley’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Propulsion Branch, explained that rockets don’t offer much in the way of efficiency: “When you have an air-breathing engine, you only need to carry the fuel on board,” he said, “because you’re actually breathing in the oxidizer – the oxygen from the air. So because you only have to carry half of your propellant on board, air-breathing engines end up being much more efficient.” The unpiloted Hyper-X test vehicle, the X-43 plane, was designed by Langley engineers and
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built by Micro Craft Inc. and General Applied Science Laboratory. The X-43 featured a supersonic combustion ramjet, or “scramjet,” an air-breathing engine in which combustion is fueled by supersonic airflow, allowing the aircraft to operate efficiently at extremely high speeds. On Nov. 16, 2004, the 3-meter-long X-43 was dropped from a B-52, boosted by a Pegasus rocket to an altitude of 109,000 feet, and then its scramjet engines kicked in and propelled it at a speed of 7,310 mph (Mach 9.6) – a world speed record for flight that stands to this day. As Axdahl pointed out, the first true spaceplane – an aircraft that will take off from a runway, enter low earth orbit or beyond, and then reenter the atmosphere
An artist’s rendering of the airbreathing, hypersonic X-43.
and land on another runway – will probably feature a combination of rocket and jet engines. It takes an enormous amount of fuel to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull, and there’s no air for a scramjet to breathe in space. Spacecraft leaving Earth must reach a velocity of about 17,600 mph to achieve orbit, and about 25,000 mph to completely escape Earth’s gravity. The only present-day technology that makes that possible is the rocket – but scramjets, Axdahl said, could make such a trip far
more feasible. “You can go as far as air-breathing technology will take you, and then, when you run out of air and can’t keep your engine lit anymore, you might switch over to your rocket and go to orbit. But because part of that trajectory was air-breathing, it made the whole system more efficient overall.” Such a trip – like most of the things Langley researchers have made happen over the last 100 years – sounds like science fiction. But there’s no reason to think it won’t happen. “We’ve played a key role in air-breathing hypersonic development for 50 years,” Axdahl said, adding that Langley would continue to do so. “We’ll figure it out. That’s Langley’s role in the world of hypersonic propulsion.”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
THE RACE TO SPACE: Langley Research Center and Project Mercury By Craig Collins
In the years following World War II, the scientific and technological superiority of the United States research complex seemed unquestionable – until Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, made an abrupt announcement: the race to space had officially begun, and the United States was a distant second. Like all Americans, researchers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were surprised – shocked, even – by the launch, but they hadn’t exactly been caught flat-flooted; many had already drifted into space exploration in their high-speed aeronautics experiments and in the effort to help the military develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This work necessarily involved rocketry. Researchers in Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD), for example, had explored the limits of aircraft speed and altitude both in Langley’s high-speed tunnels and in rocket tests launched from nearby Wallops Island. The PARD had launched its first test vehicle, a small two-stage solid-fuel rocket, in July 1945. In the postwar years, at the request of the Pentagon, Langley and the NACA’s other laboratories – Lewis and Ames – had performed theoretical
studies of ballistic missiles, rocket fuels, and automatic controls for supersonic missiles and aircraft. The National Security Council had approved a plan, Project Vanguard, to place a satellite in orbit, and by 1957 the X-15, a rocket-propelled piloted aircraft, was on the drawing board at Langley. Many military and NACA engineers were already debating how to put a person in an Earth-orbiting spacecraft. For years, Robert Gilruth, assistant director of PARD, had been urging his superiors to pursue a program to launch satellites into space, but they declined both for budgetary reasons and on the grounds that the NACA, and Langley, were research organizations. They didn’t develop things and lead projects; they ran tests and supplied research data to those who did. But U.S. researchers were seized by a renewed sense of urgency when, a month after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, which
The Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) carrying astronaut Alan Shepard in Freedom 7 lifts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, launching into its suborbital flight.
carried an even bigger payload into orbit – including the Soviet space dog Laika, signaling the Russians’ intent to send a human into space. The Navy’s Project Vanguard attempted to launch a test vehicle on Dec. 6, but it was a disaster: After traveling 4 feet off the launch pad at the Air Force’s Cape Canaveral Missile Annex in Florida, the Vanguard rocket lost thrust, sank back to the ground, and exploded. James Hansen, in Spaceflight Revolution, his history of Langley’s space program, recounted the aftermath: “The international press dubbed the failed American satellite ‘Kaputnik’ and ‘Stayputnik.’ Cynical and embarrassed Americans drank the Sputnik cocktail: two parts vodka, one part sour grapes.” In New York City, Soviet delegates to the United Nations asked their American counterparts if the United States would be interested in receiving aid under the Russian technical assistance program. Then-Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas called the Vanguard test “one of the best publicized and most humiliating failures in our history.” By summer 1958, there were four different programs under discussion for sending a manned American satellite into space. Three were military projects. Langley researchers, led by Maxime Faget, head of PARD’s Performance Aerodynamics Branch, had already begun discussing the transition from hypersonic, upper-atmospheric flight to orbital space flight. Faget, like most PARD engineers, favored a wingless “nonlifting” vehicle – a spherical or shuttlecock-shaped capsule that would simply parachute back to Earth after reentering the atmosphere in a ballistic trajectory – while others thought a lifting vehicle would offer more maneuverability. Some in the Air Force derided the idea of a nonlifting capsule as “a man in a can on an ICBM.”
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Members of the Space Task Group, including (left to right) Deputy Head Charles Donlan, Head Robert Gilruth, and Max Faget, look at a scale model of a Mercury space capsule.
NASA and the Space Task Group
Gilruth, Faget, and their colleagues at Langley-PARD, however, were mindful that they were in a race. A hypersonic “space plane,” or even the semilifting, semi-ballistic vehicle envisioned by some NACA engineers, would either take too long to develop or be too heavy for the existing launch vehicle – the Army’s Redstone ballistic missile, the first to carry a live nuclear warhead for nuclear tests by the United States. The Air Force’s newer Atlas, the nation’s first successfully tested ICBM, was more powerful – it would eventually boost John Glenn and his Friendship 7 capsule into orbit – but was still, for the time being, considered too unstable to risk as a launch vehicle. The wingless nonlifting configuration had other advantages, as well: It built on years of existing ballistic missile research, development, and production, and the fact that it would travel on a preordained ballistic trajectory meant that the engineering of stabilization, guidance, and control equipment would be minimal – and much less likely to result in malfunction. Rather than a propulsion system, the capsule would merely need “retrorockets” to decelerate the spacecraft and deflect it from
orbit. Tests of model ballistic capsules in Langley’s 20-foot Spin Tunnel had shown that attitude control jets, like those used on the rocket-powered X-planes, would work to stabilize the vehicle during reentry, aided by drogue parachutes. By summer 1958, Langley-PARD researchers had settled on a shuttlecockshaped capsule design, based in part on model tests in the 11-inch Hypersonic Tunnel. For orbital flights, the design would eventually include a rounded ablative heat shield, made of resinous material that would literally burn away and slough off superheated layers as the capsule reentered the atmosphere. One of the challenges of the PARD’s nonlifting vehicle design was the g-force an astronaut would encounter on reentering the atmosphere and suddenly decelerating. A team led by Faget had come up with a solution by mid-summer: a rigid “contour couch,” individually molded to fit the shape of each capsule pilot, made of fiberglass. Fabricated at Langley, the couch was tested on the big Navy centrifuge in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, where Navy pilots endured greater than 20 g.
The couch would more than suffice to support the body of a capsule pilot on liftoff and reentry. Meanwhile, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was conveying his ideas regarding American space exploration to Congress. It was Eisenhower’s conviction that space should be primarily an arena for scientific inquiry, rather than for militarization. The president called for the establishment of a “National Aeronautical and Space Agency” that would absorb the NACA and assume responsibility for all space activities that weren’t primarily military in nature. Congress complied with the wishes of Eisenhower, who signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958. When it began operations on Oct. 1, the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) absorbed the 43-year-old NACA and its 8,000 employees intact. The agency’s three aeronautical laboratories – Langley, Ames, and Lewis – were renamed “Research Centers” to reflect the expansion of their work into space. The new law contained no language about who, exactly,
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
should assume responsibility for manned space flight; this was, ultimately, a decision that would be up to Eisenhower and his advisers. By late August, the president had made his decision, in line with his “space for peace” policy. There was simply no military reason for putting a man in orbit, and the NACA had already done much work in the design, testing, and planning of a manned satellite project. The next question was: Who in NASA would lead the project? While personnel from each of the centers had contributed ideas, Langley seemed the obvious choice. By the time the Space Act was passed, about 40 percent of Langley’s efforts were being spent on space and missile research – and about 90 percent of the work done by PARD. Faget, Paul Purser, Caldwell Johnson, and others in PARD, together with Charles Mathews and Christopher Kraft of Langley’s Flight Research Division, had drawn up basic outlines of the mission, how the capsule should be configured and outfitted, its heating loads, and structural and weight considerations for a manned payload to be lifted by an Atlas rocket. The new aerospace agency was officially created on Oct. 1, 1958, and six days later its new administrator, Keith Glennan, assigned the job to the Langley Research Center. Robert Gilruth of PARD
would become project manager of a separate Space Task Group (STG), a collection of Langley engineers (along with about a dozen borrowed from Lewis Research Center in Ohio) formed around a nucleus of PARD personnel. In December 1958, NASA publicly announced its program to send men – “astronauts” – into space: Project Mercury, named for the fleet-footed messenger to the Roman gods. Langley and Project Mercury
In hindsight, one of the most interesting things about the American/Russian race to space was the way the new space programs reflected the societies that produced them. The Soviet program reflected a closed society; whatever Vanguard-esque failures it might have suffered, it suffered in secret, and its spaceflights were directed completely by automated, centrally controlled systems, requiring little knowledge or skill from cosmonauts.
The American space program unfolding at NASA, on the other hand, was surprisingly open and collaborative, and its designers leaned heavily on the knowledge and skills of individual astronauts. The men selected to be the first Americans in space, the “Mercury Seven” – Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton – were chosen from among the ranks of skilled aviators from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine Corps, all of them possessing degrees in science and engineering. After their introduction in April 1959, the Mercury Seven arrived at Langley as full working members of the STG, assigned responsibility not only for the flights themselves but also for designing hardware and systems. Langley engineer Charles Donlan, STG’s deputy project manager, and legendary Langley test pilot Robert Champine played critical roles in the selection of the Mercury Seven.
A full-scale model of the Mercury spacecraft undergoes testing in the FullScale Wind Tunnel at Langley Research Center in January 1959.
Above: A NASA graphic depicting a Mercury suborbital flight. Left: At Langley in November 1959, John Glenn operates the Mercury Procedures Trainer to prepare for his orbital flight of 1962. This simulator allowed astronauts to practice both normal and emergency modes of system operations. The operator at the control panel, engineer Charles Olasky, put the astronauts through simulations of entire missions as well as emergency situations. The trainer was later moved to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in 1962.
Project Mercury had three objectives: to place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around the Earth; to investigate the ability of a human to perform and function in the environment of space; and to recover the man and the spacecraft safely. The wording of these objectives was far simpler
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
than the problems the STG was about to solve. At Langley, STG staff became not only researchers, but also project managers, often working with private contractors – such as McDonnell Aircraft, which had won the contract to build the Mercury capsule – to confront the challenges of manned spaceflight. PARD’s work in rocket launch, guidance, control, and telemetry had laid the groundwork for test launches of a Mercury capsule from Wallops Island atop a four-cluster solid-fueled rocket, developed by Faget and Purser. The rocket’s four fins led Faget to nickname it “Little Joe,” for its resemblance to a roll of two on each of the dice – a hard 4 – in a craps game. The first launch of the 50-foot, 28,000-pound Little Joe occurred in October 1959. The rocket was of huge significance to Project Mercury, allowing engineers to evaluate instrumented payloads, the Mercury
The Mercury Seven, who piloted the manned spaceflights of Project Mercury from May 1961 to May 1963. The astronauts were assigned to the Space Task Group at Langley for training. Photographed in January 1961 posing with an Air Force F-106B at Langley are, left to right, M. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald “Deke” Slayton.
capsule escape rocket, and recovery systems, all with a rocket that cost a small fraction of the $1 million Redstone or $2.5 million Atlas launch vehicles. Little Joe rockets sent two rhesus monkeys, Sam and Miss Sam, into space in December 1959 and January 1960. Both monkeys survived reentry; Sam traveled 55 miles into space and was recovered intact in the Atlantic Ocean.
Another STG program was designed to evaluate a full-scale model of the Mercury capsule, known as “Big Joe,” in a test of the ablative reentry heat shield. Big Joe was successfully launched atop an Atlas booster, separated from the rocket, and fell safely back to Earth on Sept. 9, 1959, in conditions that closely simulated orbital reentry. Between August 1959, and November 1961, there were 20 unmanned Mercury missions, each designed to test functions of hardware such as spacecraft, boosters, escape systems, or tracking networks. In Langley’s High-Speed Hydrodynamics Tank, a 2,177-footlong, 8-foot-wide concrete water channel designed to test amphibious aircraft floats, STG investigators dropped dummy capsules in water impact trials, while other experimenters conducted airdrop tests of capsules with parachutes over Chesapeake
Bay. STG’s propulsion experts, borrowed from Lewis, discussed designs of the attitude control, separation, and reentry rockets. One of Langley’s most important contributions to Project Mercury was achieved by non-STG personnel: the mission control and global satellite tracking network that would allow operations officers and flight surgeons to remain in constant radio contact with Mercury astronauts. In Spaceflight Revolution, Hansen described this effort as “the biggest, most difficult to carry out logistically, and the most adventuresome” of Langley’s Mercury efforts. In an era when it wasn’t possible to pick up a telephone and instantly reach another continent, when the primary communications links with other continents were undersea telegraph cables laid at the turn of the 20th century, NASA Langley researchers had to oversee the building of their own global system from scratch.
NASA research mathematician Katherine G. Johnson is photographed at her desk at NASA Langley Research Center with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” in 1962. Johnson was an AfricanAmerican “human computer” who worked at Langley from 1953 to 1986. Not only did she calculate the trajectory of the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, she also verified the calculations made by early electronic computers of John Glenn’s 1962 launch to orbit and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the Moon. In 2015, during a ceremony at the White House, she received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her story, and the story of other groundbreaking AfricanAmerican computers, was captured in the 2016 book, Hidden Figures, and on the big screen in a major motion picture by the same name.
The network that resulted from this effort consisted of several stationary communications sites – plotted, surveyed, and built around the world, in places as far-flung as Bermuda and the Australian outback – and two shipboard stations. NASA Langley supervised the site contractors who built these installations, and within two years, the network that allowed NASA to maintain constant radio communication with orbiting Mercury astronauts had been powered up. The new network formed the foundation of today’s Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where project managers track spacecraft and satellites. Meanwhile, the Mercury Seven underwent rigorous physical conditioning, training, and evaluation at Langley. In the Hydrodynamics Tank and the nearby Back River estuary, they practiced how to get out of floating space capsules. In simulations
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
The first American to orbit the Earth, astronaut John Glenn is seen here inside his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft during the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight, Feb. 20, 1962.
Langley’s Spaceflight Legacy
The initial race to space was a sprint the United States lost by a half-step: the first American in space, Alan Shepard, got there three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. Shepard, for his part, maintained it was an abundance of caution on the part of NASA and the STG that kept him from beating Gagarin into space, but in the ensuing decades, those three weeks would seem to matter less and less, as the American space program flourished and the Soviet program floundered. At NASA – and in particular, at Langley Research Center, where the STG had succeeded in putting a man into orbit – the die had been cast. The U.S. space program, even as Project Mercury was unfolding, grew both its foot-
print and its ambitions. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the agency’s first, and still its largest, space research laboratory, was established in May 1959 in Greenbelt, Maryland. By that summer, the STG had grown from its core of about three dozen people to include 400, with staff members scattered throughout the country, working on various project elements. With more plans for space exploration on the drawing board, a brand-new home for the STG was designed and built near Houston, Texas. Gilruth and the STG moved to the new facility, which opened for business in September 1963. The facility NASA had inherited from the Air Force at Cape Canaveral would become the nation’s primary launch center for human spaceflight: the John F. Kennedy Space Center, named for the man who responded to Shepard’s first American spaceflight with what may have been the most audacious expression of hope ever uttered by a political leader. On May 25,
1961 – 20 days after Shepard’s flight – Kennedy challenged the engineers of NASA to go beyond the Earth’s orbital sphere. Their new goal, he said, should be “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” He knew what he was asking; in a later speech he would call NASA’s lunar exploration program “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Langley researchers would become key players in this adventure, which the young president wouldn’t live to see to the end. Major Sources: This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, by Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander. Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1966. Published online at https://history. nasa.gov/SP-4201/toc.htm. Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center from Sputnik to Apollo, by James R. Hansen. Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1995.
designed to replicate the weightlessness and sensory disorientation they would experience during orbit and reentry, they were put to the test. Langley staff designed and built several simulation systems to familiarize astronauts with the Mercury capsule, increasing in detail and complexity until each astronaut was simulating spaceflight in his own custom-fitted couch. By May 1961, Project Mercury was ready to send its first man into space.
THEIR LEGACY LIVES ON
CELEBRATING 100 YEARS OF EXCELLENCE IN AEROSPACE ACHIEVEMENTS, SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES AND TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGHS NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017 © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved. TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, FOX and associated logos are trademarks of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and its related entities.
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Taking Care of our Rarified Air Langley Scientists at Work By Edward Goldstein
As the seagull flies, it’s roughly 90 miles from the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers first flew in 1903, to Hampton, Virginia, where the Langley Research Center was founded 14 years later, in part to understand the effect the atmosphere has on the problems of flight. Those early Langley National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) researchers quickly determined that there was a lot more to learn about the atmosphere than just going outside and breathing in the humid mid-Atlantic air. And that’s why today, as part of a scientific enterprise that spans the globe and beyond, Langley scientists like Michael Obland can find themselves detailed to America’s most northern town, Barrow,
Alaska, where the Arctic tern flies, while working on a campaign to fly over the vast icy expanses of the North Pole in search of new insights about the composition of the thin layer of atmosphere that sustains us. “We’d get all geared up, wander down the street, warm the instruments up, get the plane out, and go fly across the frozen north,” said Obland. “It was an amazing experience for me, coming from the
continental U.S. I spent a lot of time looking out the window. There’s phenomenal topography out there with the mountains farther south near Anchorage and Juneau and you look out and you can see glaciers as far as you can see. Eventually, when you fly farther north, air traffic control in Anchorage gets on the line and says, ‘All right NASA, 529, we’re about to lose you. See you when you get back.’ That’s because they can’t see us on radar anymore. You are truly alone out there, and then there’s a tremendous feeling of isolation.” What Obland and his The Bell X-1 – the type fellow Langley scientists areaircraft seeking airborne of thatinbroke the campaignsbarrier like these is much more sound in 1947. than esoteric knowledge. In fact, we can thank the Langley team for helping to provide inconvertible evidence that rallied the nations of the planet to act decisively to avert an environmental catastrophe.
Solving the Ozone Hole Problem
Back in the 1950s scientists first observed the phenomenon of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere, and later linked the ozone loss to a chlorine buildup in the atmosphere. Eventually, with a big assist from Langley and other NASA scientists, it was determined that in polar regions, especially over the south pole where air temperatures drop below -78 degrees Celsius for five to six months, polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) are formed in the polar ozone layer. Within these clouds, reactions on PSC particles cause the chlorine gas ClO to be formed, which destroys ozone, creating the dreaded “ozone hole.”
This dramatic finding led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol agreement, whereby the nations of the world agreed to phase out the use of ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), most commonly used in refrigerants and aerosols. Due to the phase-out, which is allowing the ozone layer over Antarctica to heal, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations found that the Montreal Protocol will prevent about 2 million cases of skin cancer annually by 2030. In Obland’s telling, Langley’s involvement in ozone studies beginning in the 1970s, came naturally: “The early days of science at Langley were focused on understanding the aircraft’s interaction with the atmosphere. As you went faster and faster, into supersonic and hypersonic flight, you
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The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment II, which was central in our understanding of the hole in Earth’s ozone layer, was deployed on the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984.
had an interaction with the atmosphere that is a fundamental limitation on what you’re trying to do. You also have to start thinking about the waste particulates that come out of that engine and how that affects the atmosphere.” “In the 1970s,” Obland continued, “it was shown theoretically that if you put certain chemicals into the atmosphere, those chemicals will thin the ozone layer. That was known theoretically, so the question was, ‘Is this true? Can we go and make measurements to show whether this is happening or not?’ And it was Langley that led some of the efforts for developing, testing, flying, and proving instrumentation that could make measurements from space to show the state of ozone and other gases and constituents in the atmosphere. “One of the first of those was the Stratospheric Aerosol Measurement instrument – SAM – which flew in July 1975 on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project Mission. Astronaut Deke Slayton operated it by hand. It was one of the first instruments that showed you can measure gases in the atmosphere and start to get a handle on what was going on with gases such as ozone at high altitude. That led to the further development of instruments – SAM-2, which flew in 1978, and the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment, SAGE, of which there have been
several. SAGE was put up in 1979 on the Applications Explorer Mission-B satellite and operated for several years. SAGE II flew on the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) from 1984 through 2005. This instrument was seminal in monitoring the ozone layer, and helped contribute to our understanding of the ozone hole issues, and subsequently the policies that led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987 that banned CFCs. The latest iteration, SAGE III, launched in February and is now on the International Space Station.” The purpose of SAGE III, noted David Young, Director of Langley’s Science Directorate, “is to now show the recovery is in full swing.” From Earth to the Troposphere
Langley’s ozone work began at a time when environmental consciousness was growing in our
country, and the center was taking a leadership role throughout the agency in determining how satellite assets could be used to get a better understanding of Earth as a planet. Langley senior scientist and historian Ellis Remsberg wrote that in August 1971, NASA Headquarters directed Langley to convene a working group on the topic of the Remote Measurement of Pollution (RMOP): “The three primary RMOP panels and their chairmen were focused on gaseous air pollution (Will Kellogg), particle air pollution (Verner Suomi) and water pollution (Gifford Ewing). Two additional panels reviewed and reported on the principles of remote sensing and the associated instrument techniques. The historical evidence indicates that the findings of the SCEP report (a separate international
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
study group assessing the potential human impact on the global environment) and the RMOP Workshop Report represent the genesis of and blueprint for the satellite Earth-sensing programs within NASA for the following two decades.” Young said from the start of this work, Langley has benefitted from a sense of focus. “We concentrate on the areas where we feel we have worldwide intellectual leadership. And it’s in four key areas. The first is understanding the energy budget of the Earth; it’s the parameter you need to set the boundary conditions for understanding the present and future climate. The second is measuring the atmospheric composition of the upper atmosphere, understanding ozone and how it’s changing the chemistry of the stratosphere and mesosphere. Also, measuring things like volcanic ash and aerosols in the atmosphere and their impact on climate. The third area is atmospheric chemistry, specifically tropospheric chemistry and air pollution – making key measurements on air quality and the impacts on
Left: The Space Shuttle Discovery launches on Mission STS-64 with the Lidar In-Space Technology Experiment (LITE) on board. Below left: LITE in Discovery’s cargo bay high above Earth.
The CALIPSO satellite, a research partnership between NASA Langley and the French Space Agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, has been on orbit collecting data on clouds and aerosols for more than 11 years. public health. And the fourth area where we are taking the lead is the use of active remote sensing in the form of LIDAR [light detection and ranging] for measuring the constituents of the atmosphere. Where we add value is we’ve been making these measurements for more than 40 years and we’ve been constructing long-term, highly accurate climate records in each of these areas. This knowledge is essential for our understanding the Earth system in its present state and how it could be changing in the future.” Langley’s accomplishments with LIDAR have been particularly impressive, beginning with the flying on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1994 of the Lidar In-Space Technology Experiment (LITE), which demonstrated a new active remote
sensing technique to provide information on the vertical profile of the atmosphere. “When we started the LIDAR work in the late 1960s, no one was sure that you would have the necessary power to be able to make measurements at great distances,” said Young. “The other big challenge was making sure it was safe. As we worry about people pointing laser pens at airplanes, we had to demonstrate that if we were going to fly these systems in space, we weren’t going to put people at risk. Finally, to take this level of power and some of the complexities with the instrument itself, there were some real challenges in terms on demonstrating that you could do that in the vacuum of space, with the radiation environment etc. So our successes were multiple. We were at the forefront in showing you could make these measurements from aircraft and ensure people’s safety and return the science we needed. When we put the LIDAR on the LITE experiment, that showed we could overcome all these challenges and have a successful mission. That led to the CALIPSO [Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation] mission, which
On Sept. 23, 2015, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this view of a plankton bloom in the North Atlantic. The image was composed with data from the red, green, and blue bands from VIIRS, in addition to chlorophyll data. A series of processing steps were then applied to highlight color differences and bring out the bloom’s more subtle features. (The process also accentuates striping artifacts from the detectors that can be seen throughout the image.) Six weeks after this image was acquired, researchers were in this area with NASA’s North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES), which aims to make ship- and aircraftbased measurements that, when combined with satellite and ocean sensor data, will help clarify the annual cycles of ocean plankton and their relationship with atmospheric aerosols.
is wildly successful. We’re now into our 11th year of getting a record of thin clouds and aerosols, from what was originally planned to be a three-year mission to provide key insights into the vertical distribution of clouds and aerosols and the role they play in regulating Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality.” But that’s not the only “first” Langley scientists are credited
with. Among the center’s greatest hits are the following: • A 1974 photochemical model that provided the first detailed timetable for the origin and evolution of ozone in Earth’s atmosphere. • The 1981 Measurement of Air Pollution from Space (MAPS) Instrument, the space shuttle’s first science payload, which demonstrated that trace gases in the troposphere
are measurable from space. Subsequent flights in 1984 and two in 1994 developed a near-global database of carbon monoxide levels. • Langley pioneered the use of aircraft to understand the composition and chemistry of the troposphere during the CITE (Chemical Instrumentation Test and Evaluation) studies in the 1980s. • The launch of the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984 included the first ERBE instrument to measure the planet’s energy budget.
NASA IMAGE BY NORMAN KURING, USING VIIRS DATA FROM THE SUOMI NATIONAL POLAR-ORBITING PARTNERSHIP
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
NASA Langley’s ACT-America airborne science campaign is looking at the transport of carbon emissions around the eastern half of the United States. • Langley’s Global Tropospheric Experiment (GTE) series of airborne field studies from the late 1980s through the early 2000s provided observations across the remote atmosphere to benchmark atmospheric composition. GTE observations continue to be the only information available for certain remote portions of the globe. • The Halogen Occultation Experiment (HALOE) is the first atmospheric science instrument built in-house, launched, and operated by Langley. HALOE launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery/Upper Atmosphere Research Mission in 1991. HALOE data were among the most highly cited data sets about ozone in the 1990s.
• In 1993, Langley established an Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC) to archive and distribute Earth science data related to radiation budget, clouds, aerosols, and tropospheric chemistry. The ASDC archive holdings have surpassed four petabytes of atmospheric science data, including 300 data products supporting more than 44 science projects in 150 countries. • The Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument on the TRMM satellite was launched in 1997 to learn how clouds affect Earth’s energy balance. A total of five subsequent CERES flight models are now in orbit on the Terra, Aqua, and Suomi NPP spacecraft, and a sixth is slated to launch this fall. • Through 2020, Langley science teams are leading two Earth Venture airborne science missions: NAAMES (North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystem Study) and ACT-America (Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America).
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PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA
Langley Research Center’s B200 King Air prepares for a dawn launch in the far north.
An important element of Langley’s science mission includes public engagement. Young noted that the education outreach component of the CERES Earth radiation budget measurement mission fostered the S’COOL project – Student’s Cloud Observations on Line. “The idea was to get students involved in making cloud measurements directly at the time when a satellite passes overhead,” he said. “It led to us using data from students in kindergarten through college in scientifically peer-reviewed journal articles as part of causal statements made in conjunction with theory.” The student ground observations helped scientists by confirming the presence of clouds in areas and under conditions that are challenging for satellite instruments. “We often hear about how NASA satellite data helps students, but there are also quite a few things the students do for us,” said Lin Chambers, the former S’COOL program lead. In 2017, S’COOL merged with GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), an international science and education community of teachers, students, scientists and citizen scientists who collect and analyze Earth systems data. Also, through DEVELOP, part of NASA’s applied science program, said Young, “We have a science adviser who works with state and local governments to
understand their needs and how they can potentially use Earth science projects for direct social benefit.” An ongoing project advised by Langley’s Dr. Kenton Ross is helping biologists understand the impact of light pollution on the behavior of nocturnal wildlife in Grand Teton National Park. Another advised by Langley’s Joseph Spruce is helping the National Park Service monitor the impact of changing snow-cover patterns in southeastern Arizona’s biodiversity-rich Sky Islands. Young also noted DEVELOP brings in college students, young professionals, and active-duty military to develop a cadre of people who can do this work when they leave the program. “It’s a tremendous program, a great advertisement about the benefits of Earth science for the public.”
When asked to describe the ultimate value of Langley’s Earth and Atmospheric science program, Young summed it up this way: “A lot of people were inspired by the Earthrise picture from Apollo 8. That thin layer of atmosphere the astronauts saw makes life possible. And between that thin layer there’s not a lot there. That and the magnetic fields that protect us from the harmful radiation coming into the Earth and the ozone that protects us from ultraviolet radiation. You must be careful to understand how that can change in the future. Looking at Earth from space reminds us that we are on a really lonely outpost in a really cold universe, and it’s that atmosphere that’s keeping us warm and making it possible for you and your family to be alive.”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Problem Solving By J.R. Wilson
When the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was created in 1917, just as the United States entered World War I, the intent was to build a top-scale aerodynamics research facility and infrastructure, along with a cadre of the top engineers and researchers the country then had in the fledgling realm of aviation. As the lab and its facilities grew, both in size and reputation, virtually every company and government agency involved in aviation increasingly turned to Langley for problem-solving – from emergency response calls stemming from a catastrophic failure to help in understanding a unique structural issue. Eventually, the reputation of Langley engineers and researchers led others, outside aviation – and later, space – to call on them for help. “We are a fundamental R&D center, so we have a great deal of both breadth and depth in fundamental physics and have the labs and test facilities to do in-depth analysis,” noted Walt Engelund, Director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate. “It is the decades of deep subject matter expertise we have developed in a lot of the key fundamental flight sciences disciplines that was part of the reason why NASA located NESC here, for both the culture, expertise and facilities at Langley.”
NESC – the NASA Engineering and Safety Center – was stood up as a tenant organization at Langley in 2004, largely as a result of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation, according to William Prosser, a Technical Fellow for Nondestructive Evaluation (NDE) at the safety center. “In particular, the report referenced not having a strong independent engineering organization within NASA. “There often is not one perfect solution to a problem but a number, some with more risk, others with a better schedule or budget path, etc.,” Prosser said. “So often we are trying to find solutions
AP PHOTO/STAR BULLETIN/DENNIS ODA
Langley’s investigation into the causes of the catastrophic fuselage structural failure of Aloha Airlines Flight 243 led the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to ensure the safety of airline passengers by initiating the Aging Airplane Program.
to particular engineering problems on an aircraft or spacecraft and the debate often goes down programmatic lines involving the fastest and least expensive solution, while the engineering side is looking for the best technical solution with the lowest risk. There is and should be a healthy tension between the two – and on really important problems, it is important to have a truly
independent organization come in and look at things.” Since World War I, the calls on Langley expertise and facilities have fallen into two broad categories: Problem-solving, many of which are quickly dealt with at the individual engineer or team level, and emergency response – or 911 calls – that involve loss of life, life-threatening situations, or major program delays and require weeks
or months to resolve and the involvement of multiple personnel and facilities. “Problem-solving and 911 are different things. We solve problems all the time for DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] or Boeing or some other agency or company. Most are aerospace, but there are a few that are not,” Edward Healy, Langley’s Director of Engineering, explained.
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A Delta II rocket on Pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Langley helped solve a control problem and return the booster to flight after problems had forced a suspension of launches. “And the aerospace community is changing,” he said. “Amazon is now an aerospace company. Even Uber is developing an aerospace capability.” Since the creation of NESC, most of the 911 calls have gone to it – although often routed to Langley engineers and facilities for resolution. Problem-solving calls still often go directly to a Langley engineer or branch head. “Langley has a lot of experts in a lot of various fields. We are a research center, which means our folks understand the basic principles, such as how a structure is formed or how a crack propagates. We also have a long heritage of taking things to flight, from some of the country’s original aircraft to the Mercury and Viking space programs. That combination has made us a place where people come for difficult problems they can’t solve on their own,” Healy said. “Many calls that used to come into Langley now come into the NESC at Langley … but in terms of major calls about serious problems, such as the Toyota unintended acceleration issue, or the Chilean miners, only two or three times a year.” In August 2010, a copper mine in northern Chile collapsed, trapping 33 miners. After 17 days of intense digging and searching, all 33 were found to still be alive, but rescuing them from a blocked tunnel more than
2,000 feet beneath the surface of Chile’s Atacama Desert seemed nearly impossible. Concerned about the miners’ medical and psychological condition, the Chilean government called on NASA’s experience in harsh environments. Two doctors and a psychologist from Johnson Space Center in Houston were sent to the
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera watches the first dry run of the descent of the Phoenix 2 rescue capsule that would save the 33 trapped miners at the San Jose mine near Copiapó, Chile, Oct. 12, 2010. NASA engineers and experts suggested 75 design features for the rescue capsule, most of which were adopted in the successful design.
site, joined by Langley principal engineer Clint Cragg, a retired Navy submarine commander and a founding member of NESC. Cragg met with engineers from the Chilean navy and suggested NASA might help design a rescue capsule. On his return to the United States he put together a team of engineers from almost every NASA center. After three
GOVERNMENT OF CHILE PHOTO BY HUGO INFANTE
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
days, they sent the Chilean Minister of Health a 13-page document with 75 suggested design features. Two months after they were trapped, all of the miners were successfully rescued using a 13-foot-long steel cage incorporating most of the NASA team’s recommendations. “We got involved in the Chilean miner situation because the miners’ isolation and confinement in a tight space was similar to long-duration space missions,” Prosser explained. “And the design and construction of the rescue capsule they used to bring them up out of the mine was, in some ways, analogous to the design of a spaceflight vehicle, including consideration for medical care and life support during transit, as during the design phase they thought it might take up to a half hour per person to bring them up. So we looked at it as we would a space capsule in
The head of the National Transportation Safety Board, Marion Blakey, and NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe came to NASA Langley in 2002 to inspect the tail section from American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed off Long Island, New York, in November 2001. Langley researchers studied the large composite piece and helped determine the cause of the accident. terms of environmental loads, life support, and other issues. “The Toyota problem involved electrical engineering and the vehicle’s computer control system,” said Prosser. “Our teams have a lot of expertise in investigating flight software and control systems and a lot of that expertise was applied to the Toyota control system to try to find issues that might have led to those problems.” The bulk of Langley’s problem-solving efforts from World
War I through World War II involved aeronautical troubleshooting for the military, which continued through the end of the century, such as the work Langley aerodynamics engineers did in the late 1990s, helping the Navy resolve a wing-drop problem they couldn’t understand with the new F/A-18E Super Hornet. But during peacetime, they also were called upon to help resolve problems involving commercial aviation and some non-aviation concerns, as well as space-related issues. “On Nov. 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed off Long Island [New York]. They brought the composite tail section to Langley to determine what happened,” Healy recalled, noting Langley is known as a center of excellence for composite structural materials. “Another was Otis Elevator Co., which was having problems with its elevators
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near coastlines corroding. Our structures group looked at it and how cracks formed on the elevator cables, which led to some design changes. “In 2005, the Air Force was having a control problem with the Delta II Heavy rocket during transonic flight, which led to a suspension of launches until it was solved. They asked us to conduct some tests; we suggested some smaller tests than they had requested and recommended some changes in the control system, which solved the problem.” Prosser noted another airliner accident in which Langley not only helped determine the cause, but set the stage for changes in engineering design and safety practices across the aviation industry. “There was a lot of work done after the Aloha Airlines accident
The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket, which has launched several satellites into orbit, suffered aerodynamic issues at one point in its development that were resolved by Langley engineers. in the 1980s [in which a section of the top fuselage tore away in flight]. The FAA’s Aging Aircraft Program came out of Langley’s investigation into that, to help improve and understand not only what led to that accident, but also to improve the safety of all aircraft as a result,” he said. Engelund, who was chief engineer in NESC from 2009 to 2013, then chief engineer at Langley before taking his current job, added some other non-aviation and space-related examples of Langley’s problem-solving history.
“Before the NESC, the National Archives was having problems with atmospheric gases leaking into the display holding the original Declaration of Independence. Langley scientists made measurements of the gases inside the case and helped redesign it. And in the early 1970s, a Langley engineer was asked to validate the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said. “In the 1960s, our work on the lunar mapping program led to our work on the Mars Viking landers in the 1970s and development of the space shuttle, looking at flight controls and trajectory analysis,” Engelund said. “The 1995 Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL air-launched rocket failure was a NASA 911 call. It turned out to be an aerodynamics problem, which made Langley the place to go to figure out what happened.”
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Langley was created 100 years ago to “solve the problems of flight with a view to practical solutions.” The first problem Langley was asked to solve was engine cooling in biplanes with open radial engines. Fred Weick led a team that used the Propeller Research Tunnel to develop engine cowlings that also helped cool engines. In 1929, the lab received a Collier Trophy – its first – for the cowling. But while NESC is a tenant at Langley, reporting directly to NASA Headquarters Office of the Chief Engineer, Prosser sees the two as closely tied, in history as well as present-day calls for help, and believes NESC has benefitted Langley. “Certainly in NDE,” he said. “Historically Langley was a
An F/A-18E Super Hornet from the Tophatters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14 participates in an air power demonstration over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Langley helped find a solution to the Super Hornet’s “wing-drop” problem.
research organization that occasionally was brought into investigations on flight vehicles. But because of NESC, there definitely have been a lot more activities in which Langley expertise has been called upon that might not have been the case had NESC not been here.” The benefits extend beyond Langley and NASA. “We
contribute to a lot of things that are seen and some that aren’t seen by the public,” Healy added. “We do a lot of work on aircraft, both military and commercial. In the late ’90s, the NASA safety program, which was headquartered at Langley at the time, set a bold goal to reduce aircraft accidents by 90 percent within 20 years, and they achieved that goal.” And earlier in the decade, Langley engineers wrapped up development of wind shear detection technology to help pilots detect microbursts, which are localized sudden, short-lived strong downdrafts that can cause an aircraft to lose altitude suddenly. That predictive radar is now mandatory equipment on U.S. airliners.
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
SATELLITES, ROVERS, AND ROBOTS: NASA Langley’s Uncrewed Space Exploration and Science By Craig Collins
Meanwhile, Langley researchers were neck-deep in two other in-house projects. Since 1956, a team had been at work on an idea hatched by aeronautical engineer William O’Sullivan: Project Echo, which would become the world’s first communications satellite. Echo took a while to achieve success, in part because it presented Langley researchers with
a seemingly impossible trade-off. It would be a “passive” communications satellite – signals would not be sent from the satellite, but literally bounced off its surface and deflected to another Earthly location – and so would have to be fairly large. At the same time, it would have to be feather-light, in order to ride aboard the rockets of the day. O’Sullivan solved this apparent paradox by envisioning a metallic balloon.
In the early years of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as the new Space Task Group at Langley Research Center was figuring out how to send men into space, existing space programs at Langley continued to hum along. In their explorations of the operational limits of aircraft, Langley researchers, who had been firing rockets since 1945 from a launch site on nearby Wallops Island, Virginia, had already begun approaching the conditions of spaceflight. After NASA was formed, Wallops became the site for uncrewed tests of the first American spacecraft, the Mercury capsule. On Dec. 4, 1959, the rhesus monkey Sam was boosted into orbit from Wallops, in a successful evaluation of the capsule and escape system known as the Little Joe.
Langley historian James Hansen, in his history of Langley’s space research, Spaceflight Revolution, called the Echo balloon … perhaps the most beautiful object ever to be put into space. The big and brilliant sphere had a 31,416-square foot surface of Mylar plastic covered smoothly with a mere 4 pounds of vapor-deposited aluminum. All told, counting 30 pounds of inflating chemicals and two 11-ounce, 3/8-inch-thick radio tracking beacons (packed with 70 solar cells and 5 storage batteries),
This low-angle self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Langley Research Center has played an important role in NASA uncrewed missions since the launch of the nation’s first satellites. the sphere weighed only 132 pounds. After some trials and errors, the Langley team figured out a way to fold this 100-foot sphere into a cylindrical mass that could
be packed into a 26-inch canister. The first successful launch of Echo, now known as Echo 1, took off from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 12, 1960. Once ejected from the canister in space, powdered chemicals, packed inside Echo’s skin, slowly vaporized into gas as they absorbed heat from the sun, inflating the satellite balloon, or “satelloon,” to its full 10-story height, clearly visible to the naked eye as it crossed the night sky. From its orbit, 1,000 miles above the Earth, Echo 1 bounced a message from President Dwight D. Eisenhower back to the world: This is President Eisenhower speaking. This is
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Echo I was the world’s first communications satellite, or “satelloon,” a giant inflatable sphere from which signals could be bounced.
a 12-foot inflatable satellite designed to study the density and composition of the upper atmosphere. Explorer 9 remained in orbit for more than three years.
To the Moon
one more significant step in the United States’ program of space research and exploration being carried forward for peaceful purposes. The satellite balloon, which has reflected these words, may be used freely by any nation for similar experiments in its own interest. Langley’s engineers estimated that Echo would survive about two years, but it orbited the Earth until May 1968. Echo 2, about one-third larger than Echo 1, was launched in January 1964 and orbited until June 7, 1969, about six weeks before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the Moon. The Echo design was later used in the fabrication of NASA’s PAGEOS (Passive Geodetic Earth Orbiting Satellite), a sphere the
same size as Echo 1, launched in 1966. Used to help form a worldwide satellite triangulation network, PAGEOS began to break apart in 1975. Another major program to be carried out entirely by Langley researchers was the Scout rocket, begun in 1957. Designed as an inexpensive rocket to carry small research payloads, the Scout, while much smaller than the Redstone and Atlas vehicles used for the Mercury missions, was by far the largest rocket to launch from Wallops Island – a four-stage, solid-fuel booster capable of placing a 150-pound satellite into orbit 500 miles above Earth. On Feb. 16, 1961, Langley’s Scout rocket became the first solid-fuel rocket – and the first rocket from Wallops – to place a payload in orbit: Explorer 9,
When President John F. Kennedy issued his famous 1961 challenge to land men on the Moon, Langley researchers, who’d already begun examining the problems associated with lunar exploration, weren’t as stunned as the rest of the country – but even they were shocked by the president’s deadline. He’d asked the nation to commit itself to a Moon landing “before this decade is out” – before New Year’s Day 1970. The main problem with sending people to the Moon within nine years was that nobody knew much about the Moon yet. Some of science’s leading minds hypothesized that its surface was covered in a layer of dust so thick it would swallow any craft that tried to land on it. In Spaceflight Revolution, Hansen recounted the theory of one esteemed Ivy League astronomer: “ … the Moon could even be composed of spongy, fairycastle-like material that would crumble upon impact.” In 1963, NASA decided on a separate program designed
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
explicitly to serve the needs of the Apollo mission: to launch a series of orbiting spacecraft that would provide high-resolution stereoscopic photographs of the lunar surface and help Apollo’s people decide where the astronauts would land. Because the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA’s robotic spacecraft experts, had their hands full with Ranger and Surveyor – two projects to learn more about the lunar surface – NASA leadership turned to Langley Research Center, whose researchers had demonstrated in the early years of the Mercury program a gift for project management. A lot was riding on the Lunar Orbiter program, and not everyone thought it was a good idea to assign it to Langley. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harold Urey sent a strongly worded letter to NASA Administrator James Webb: “How in the world,” he wrote, “could
Right: The first image of Earth taken from space, from Lunar Orbiter 1 as it orbited the Moon. The original Lunar Orbiter image has been enhanced with new technology. Below right: Langley managed NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Program. Between 1966 -1967, five orbiters built by The Boeing Company were launched, and 99 percent of the Moon was photographed. The Orbiter spacecraft is depicted in this NASA graphic.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NASA
Above: Viking 1 launched aboard a Titan rocket Aug. 20, 1975, and arrived at Mars on June 19, 1976. The first month was spent in orbit around Mars, and on July 20, 1976, Viking Lander 1 separated from the Orbiter and touched down at Chryse Planitia. Right: May 1, 1974: Viking under assembly at Martin Marietta Aerospace near Denver, Colorado. Martin Marietta was prime and integration contractor for the Viking project, which Langley led.
the Langley Research Center, which is nothing more than a bunch of plumbers, manage this scientific program to the Moon?” Walt Engelund, Langley’s Director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate, put this comment into historical context: “At the time,”
he said, “Langley was viewed as a bunch of people who worked in wind tunnels and built structures, but were not sophisticated builders or purveyors of spacecraft.” Lunar Orbiter would become one of Langley’s most successful programs, however. Five orbiters were launched within a year, each of them successfully, between August 1966 and 1967. The spacecraft returned photography of 99 percent of the Moon’s surface, both the near and far side, with resolution down to 1 meter. These high-resolution images made it possible to select the best landing sites for both the Surveyor and Apollo spacecraft – including Apollo 11’s Tranquility Base – and radiation experiments on the orbiters helped to confirm the Apollo spacecraft’s design would protect astronauts from solar radiation during their journey. Images of the Moon seem routine now, but the pictures sent back by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft were awe-inspiring. On Aug. 23, 1966, Lunar Orbiter 1 captured the very first “earthrise” picture, an image of Earth from above the Moon, and on Aug. 8, 1967, Lunar Orbiter 5 relayed the first full picture of the entire Earth.
Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976. The primary objectives of the Viking mission, which was composed of two spacecraft, were to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface, and search for evidence of life on Mars.
Viking: A Second Triumph for the Plumbers
In the 1960s, five successful missions in five attempts was an unusually successful record for uncrewed space exploration. Lunar Orbiter’s perfect record in reaching the Moon, a quarter of a million miles away, led NASA’s Office of Space Science to believe Langley’s project managers should take charge of a program – Project Viking – to send uncrewed landers on a journey of more than 400 million miles, to Mars. Viking, the first operational spacecraft to land on another planet, would then deploy experiments designed to detect signs of life on the Martian surface. In 1968, Langley’s James Martin, who had been assistant manager
for the Lunar Orbiter program, was chosen to lead the new mission to Mars. Project Viking would consist of two identical spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking 2, each consisting of an orbiter and lander that together weighed more than 3 tons. The orbiter and the lander would travel to Mars together, and remain in orbit while the orbiter scanned the Martian surface for a suitable landing site. When the lander – a 5-footwide platform supporting scientific instruments – departed for the Martian surface, the orbiter would act as communications relay while performing its own scientific experiments. The Langley team chose Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) as the principal contractor for Project Viking, and the company built and tested two Langley-designed landers at its facility near Denver. The JPL designed and built the Viking orbiters – and would later manage the science mission – while Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center designed the launch vehicle, a Titan III-E/ Centaur rocket. Other NASA centers, including Ames, Goddard, the Kennedy Launch Complex, and the Johnson Space Flight Center, would also contribute to the program, which was planned to achieve its mission on the U.S. bicentennial: July 4, 1976. Both Viking 1 and Viking 2 were launched in the summer of 1975. For each, the journey took 11 months; Viking 1 entered Mars orbit on June 19, 1976 and Viking 2 followed on Aug. 7. The Viking 1 Lander wasn’t able to touch down by July 4, because the orbiter’s images showed the intended landing site was too rocky and dangerous. On July 20 – seven years to the day after Neil
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NASA
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had first set foot on the Moon – Lander 1 detached from its orbiter and plunged into the Martian atmosphere at nearly 10,000 mph. At about 4,000 feet, a parachute deployed and retrorockets fired, slowing the lander’s descent to about 6 mph. Lander 1 came to rest on an ancient floodplain known as Chryse Planitia. Lander 2 set down about 1,000 miles closer to Mars’ north pole, in the Utopia Planitia, on Sept. 3. The landers, which had analyzed the Martian atmosphere during their descents, promptly began scooping up and analyzing Martian soil samples, which revealed strange and unexpected
The heat shield for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is the largest ever built for a planetary mission. In April 2011, technicians at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver install electronics for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI). Developed by Langley in partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center, the instrument collected data about temperature and pressure during MSL’s descent through the Martian atmosphere. Langley has special expertise in developing and providing technologies to support the entry/ descent/landing (EDL) stages of uncrewed missions.
chemical activity – but no definitive signs of life. Both Viking orbiter/lander sets performed far past their expected service lives. The landers, designed to function for 90 days, continued to collect data for more than six years, until Lander 1 shut down on Nov. 13, 1982. In addition to the first measurements of the planet’s atmospheric composition, temperature, pressure, and density, and data on the Martian soil’s composition – from which life has not yet been ruled out by some of the scientists who’ve studied it – Project Viking sent back 55,000 photographs of the Martian surface from orbit and 5,500 pictures
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from the landers. Like the Lunar Orbiter’s first images of the Earth from a distance, those first color images, of the Martian surface and the planet’s pink sky probably don’t seem all that extraordinary to many Americans today, but they provide a window to a world that carries tremendous emotional – even spiritual – significance to those at NASA Langley who remember, or at least understand, what it took to get those pictures. Langley’s Role Today
Much of Langley Research Center’s current work in uncrewed space exploration, said Walt Engelund, evolved from
Langley’s expertise in entry, descent, and landing is why the center’s engineers are supporting NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in the development of an inflatable spacecraft technology called the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator – or HIAD for short. The inflatable orange rings work like a parachute, using the drag of a planet’s atmosphere to slow down a spacecraft, protecting it from the intense atmospheric heat, and also allowing it to have a softer landing. The HIAD could give NASA more options for future planetary missions, because it could allow spacecraft to carry larger, heavier scientific instruments and other tools for exploration.
the expertise its researchers developed in the Lunar Orbiter and Viking missions. “One of the most important contributions we made to the development of Viking,” he said, “was the tech-
nology we developed for the entry/descent/landing system. That’s enabled us to contribute to all the Mars missions since, all the way up to Mars Science Laboratory in 2012 and the
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2020 rover mission that’s coming.” When spacecraft enter the Mars atmosphere, which is about 1/100th as dense as Earth’s, without first entering orbit, they’re moving at much faster speeds than Viking – the Pathfinder lander, which descended in August 1997, had to slow from a speed of around Mach 40, about 30,000 miles per hour, to essentially zero miles per hour within minutes. The expertise gained in Project Viking has allowed Langley researchers to design the entry/ descent/landing (EDL) systems for such spacecraft: the aeroshell (the shielded shell that helps decelerate and protect a spacecraft vehicle from heat, pressure, and drag during atmospheric entry), retrorockets, and parachutes, as well as the computations and modeling that help determine optimal positioning, timing, angle of entry, and other important variables. If something goes wrong with a mission to another celestial body, it will most likely go wrong during the EDL phase, which is why EDL teams spend years planning, and practicing millions of computer landings that account for every conceivable set of variables, for a process that takes several minutes. In 2023, the current plan is for NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, which launched from Cape Canaveral in September 2016, to return a sample from an asteroid, RQ36, safely to the ground at the Utah Test and Training Range near Salt Lake City. “The challenge with this asteroid sample return mission,” said Engelund, “is that you’re coming back to Earth at much faster speeds
than any previous missions have ever flown. The aeroshell, the thermal protection system materials, and the entry, descent, and landing technologies that enable you to do that are critical. That’s been a big part of our research and focus the last two decades.” For a number of reasons, Langley Research Center’s work in space has, for the past few decades, been organized around its core expertise – EDL technologies; in-space assembly and operations technologies; strong, lightweight materials; and deep space habitation systems, and big projects have tended to draw resources away from these core capabilities. “At some point after the Viking project,” said Engelund, “we decided we need to stop doing these big missions and let the JPLs and the Goddards and the JSCs do that work. We needed to focus on technology development for aeronautics and space.” Langley chemists and engineers are on the leading edge of investigations into the next generation of materials and structures for space applications – helping to design and fabricate, with maximum efficiency, the most advanced and lightweight composites and metals. This work naturally feeds into Langley’s expertise in the design and construction of large space structures, which began with a series of studies, from the 1970s into the early 1990s, evaluating the assembly methods of astronauts in low Earth orbit. Today, Langley researchers are involved in evaluations of autonomous robotic inspace assembly, particularly of structures composed of
replaceable modular units. Langley engineers, for example, are working with a commercial communications satellite provider on more efficient ways of upgrading its broadband service. “The problem is packaging everything into a payload shroud,” Engelund said. The reflector antennas that beam signals to customers are necessarily large, but Langley engineers have figured out a way to send them into orbit in pieces, to be assembled robotically. “We’ve got a technology, and are working with them on a capability,” said Engelund, “to package additional – unassembled – antennas on top of the spacecraft. And once you get into orbit, you reach out with a robot arm and add additional antennas. Essentially, you double the bandwidth … It’s actually using a joining technology Langley developed back in the 1980s for space shuttle astronauts to go out and assemble structures in orbit.” Langley’s successful track record in project management has made it a source of data and forecasting for NASA Headquarters. “We do a lot of mission concept studies for headquarters,” Engelund said, “and then headquarters tries to weigh those against budget priorities, and sometimes those things get funded, and sometimes not. But our main focus continues to be on developing technology. That has been, and continues to be, our real value proposition as we develop the concepts and enabling technologies for advanced robotic space flight missions – to Mars and maybe beyond.”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
PIONEERING SPACE Langley’s Role in Crewed Spaceflight By Craig Collins
When President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to send human beings to the Moon on May 25, 1961, he delivered one of the most consequential speeches in U.S. history – and one of the many consequences was the expansion of expertise and capabilities within the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Space Task Group that had been established at Langley to lead the Mercury program would move to a larger facility, the Manned Spacecraft Center, in Houston, and other specialists would work on the Moon landing from NASA facilities including the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the three Research Centers: Langley, Ames, and Lewis (now Glenn). The lunar exploration program was a whole-of-NASA movement, involving hundreds of thousands of people and more than 20,000 university and private-sector partners – and the researchers at Langley, where the U.S. space program was born, would play key roles throughout. What many historians consider NASA Langley’s most important contribution to the Apollo mission happened before the program had fully launched. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon “before the decade is out” meant the problems of crewed lunar exploration had to be solved quickly – and the sequence involved in a Moon landing was far more complicated than a Mercury capsule orbit of the Earth: The Apollo spacecraft would launch from Earth, travel 250,000 miles to the Moon, land, take off from
the lunar surface, and travel another 250,000 miles home. NASA considered three options for achieving these steps. The first studied was direct ascent, the method popularized in science fiction novels and movies: A massive rocket that would boost a spaceship large enough to reach the Moon, land, and launch itself from the lunar surface intact. The rocket capable of lifting such a spacecraft would have to be the size of a battleship, however, and a huge amount of
Above: The Gemini VII spacecraft seen from Gemini VI. Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford on Gemini VI and Frank Borman and James A. Lovell on Gemini VII practiced rendezvous and station-keeping together for one day in orbit. Between Project Mercury and Project Apollo, Project Gemini tested rendezvous in space, longer duration missions, docking two spacecraft, and many other concepts necessary to make Apollo a success. Left: Langley researchers built the Rendezvous Docking Simulator to give astronauts a routine opportunity to pilot dynamically controlled scale-model vehicles in an environment that closely paralleled that of space. fuel would be required to relaunch the entire spacecraft off the lunar surface. The second option, Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR), called for two spacecraft to be launched into orbit, then release payloads that would be assembled into a vehicle that would travel to the Moon and back. EORâ€™s main drawback, of course, was that it required two multimillion-dollar
rockets, each capable of lifting a large payload into Earth orbit. A third dark-horse option, lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR), was proposed by a vocal minority led by Langley aeronautical engineer John Houbolt. LOR called for three small spacecraft: A command module, a service module (with fuel and control systems), and a small lunar lander would be lifted
Innovative Team Leverages Technology at NASA’s Measurement Systems Lab
Artist’s concept of the Measurement Systems Laboratory building at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: NASA Langley
The Measurement Systems Lab supports the core of NASA’s work: research and development of new measurement concepts, technologies and systems to enable NASA to achieve its mission in space exploration, science and aeronautics.
NASA Langley Research Center excels at developing advanced technology. Locating six NASA Research and Engineering groups in one space reduces the time it takes to move an idea from concept to application. Laser/Calibration/Sensor, Chemistry, Electronics, Prototyping and Clean Room laboratories are collocated in the 175,000 square foot Measurement Systems Lab.
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Building Information Models (BIM) immerse scientists into the building’s environment, where they can experience their laboratory virtually. Researchers can “walk” through the space to understand the design better than from two-dimensional drawings alone.
“We plan to integrate the final, as-built Building Information Model into NASA’s facilities management software,” Bean said. “All pertinent building system equipment will be included in the model and linked to the facilities management tool. This information will be at the fingertips of NASA’s facilities management team with the click of a mouse. The benefits of this integration are huge.”
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Left: The Apollo 9 Command/ Service Module (CSM) Gumdrop and Lunar Module (LM) Spider are shown docked together in Earth orbit as Command Module pilot David R. Scott stands in the open hatch. Astronaut Russell L. Schweickart, Lunar Module pilot, took this photograph of Scott during his extra vehicular activity (EVA) as he stood on the “porch” outside the Lunar Module. The mission was a nuts-andbolts proof of the concept of lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) proposed by John Houbolt, pictured below left.
together into Earth orbit by a three-stage rocket. The third rocket stage would propel the payload to a lunar orbit, where the lunar module (LM) would detach from the mother ship and land on the Moon. After a successful lunar excursion, the top half of the LM would blast off, dock with the Command/Service Module (CSM), and return home. LOR seemed a wild idea at first, and was rejected outright by some of the most brilliant minds at NASA, but for two years, Houbolt persisted with facts and figures that supported it as the best option for reaching the Moon by 1970. In time, the advantages of the approach – less fuel, half the payload,
and less brand-new technology, among others – couldn’t be denied. Apollo and the Gemini program, conceived primarily to perfect rendezvous and docking procedures, were built around Houbolt’s LOR concept. Langley’s Applied Materials and Physics Division promptly took charge of the effort to determine the effects of atmospheric entry on the proposed spacecraft – which, in the case of Apollo, would reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 25,000 miles per hour. Project Flight Investigation Reentry Environment (FIRE) used both ground testing in wind tunnels and flight tests that informed the designs of spacecraft engineers.
Meanwhile, Langley researchers were building simulators that would teach the Gemini and Apollo astronauts what they needed to know. The Rendezvous and Docking Simulator, an ingeniously designed overhead carriage hung from a gantry frame inside the hangar of Langley’s Flight Research Laboratory, became operational in June 1963. From this overhead track, astronauts suspended in gimbal-mounted scale model vehicles practiced docking in an environment that closely resembled space. Langley’s more conspicuous simulator was completed in 1965: the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF), a 400-foot-long, 240-foot-high A-frame gantry, built over a former cow pasture, from which astronauts could practice “flying” a full-scale LM simulator. The gantry could also be adapted, with the use of slings, cables, and harnesses, into a contraption that came to be known as the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator, which allowed astronauts
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Right: The Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF) was a 400-foot-long, 240-foothigh A-frame gantry from which astronauts could practice flying a full-scale LM simulator. Below right: Two dozen astronauts practiced landing on the lunar surface with the LLRF at NASA Langley Research Center. A closer look shows how the LLRF employed floodlights shining down to simulate lunar light and a base modeled to resemble the lunar surface.
to practice walking and working in a simulated Moon environment – down to fake craters; long, dark, painted-on shadows; and powerful floodlights angled to resemble lunar light – while experiencing a gravitational pull 1/6th as powerful as the Earth’s. By the time the Apollo program had concluded, the LLRF had been used to train 24 astronauts for lunar missions. When Neil Armstrong spotted his shadow on the lunar dust on July 20, 1969, he said, it looked the same as it had while training at the LLRF. Asked what it was like to walk on the Moon, Armstrong replied: “Like Langley.” In 1985, both the Rendezvous Docking Simulator and Lunar Landing Research Facility were designated National Historic Landmarks, in recognition of their role in the space program.
In 1972, as Project Apollo began to wind down, President Richard Nixon announced NASA’s next space project. The space shuttle,
Left: Before building flight demonstrators, Langley engineers spent years studying “lifting body” spacecraft concepts. They tested this design in the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel in 1964. Right: A variety of space shuttle designs went through more than 60,000 hours of testing in Langley’s wind tunnels, including this model in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel in 1972.
“an entirely new type of space transportation system,” would be the world’s first reusable spacecraft, capable of leaving the atmosphere, returning, and landing like an airplane, allowing “routine access to space.” Langley Research Center’s long history of experimentation with winged “spaceplanes” and, during the 1950s and 1960s, “lifting body” spacecraft that allowed for some maneuverability on reentry, ensured that its spaceflight experts played an important role in the design of the new spacecraft. The shuttle’s final shape, in fact, resembled the HL-10 lifting body demonstrator designed by Langley, built by Northrop, and at the time still flying technology demonstrations at the (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center in California.
Early space shuttle concepts included deployable jet engines that could, upon atmospheric reentry, power its descent and maneuvers. Langley engineers, however, pointed out that the shuttle didn’t need to fly – it just needed to glide to a safe landing, as the HL-10 was doing in the desert. The “dead stick” landing, argued Langley’s engineers, would be much simpler and reduce weight. Jet engines were omitted from the final shuttle design, which also featured the modified delta wing recommended by Langley. Before the Space Shuttle Enterprise’s 1977 test flight, scale models endured more than 60,000 hours of testing in Langley’s wind tunnels, verifying the spacecraft’s aerodynamic soundness. Langley’s expertise in entry/descent/landing (EDL) came into play as the agency investigated new heat-shielding technologies. An ablative heat shield, which essentially burned away upon reentry, was a poor choice for a spacecraft that was to be considered “reusable,” so the shuttle design featured a thermal protection system comprised of thick ceramic tiles that would protect the orbiter and its astronauts from the 3,000 degree F heat of atmospheric reentry. After resolving a serious problem with the thermal protection system – the failure of an adhesive to keep tiles bonded to the shuttle’s aluminum skin – Langley researchers investigated and certified the thermal protection system. As they had for the Gemini and Apollo programs, Langley’s researchers
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
also developed simulations of the shuttle’s flight control and guidance systems. The space shuttle was the first spacecraft to need rubber tires to return home, and at Langley’s Aircraft Landing Dynamics Facility, engineers conducted landing tests on tires and braking systems. The Space Shuttle Columbia became the first of the five space-worthy orbiters to fly, launching on April 12, 1981. The program flew two dozen successful missions before tragedy struck on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew were lost in an explosion shortly after liftoff. After the accident, Langley researchers helped evaluate the components that failed – the O-ring gasket that sealed one of the rocket boosters – and design a new way of joining the shuttle launcher’s solid rocket boosters. In 1984, the Space Shuttle Challenger had placed a Langleydesigned and -built experiment platform, the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), in low Earth orbit. The LDEF was
Space Shuttle Discovery leaps from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39B on the July 25, 2005, historic return-toflight mission, the first since the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Hundreds of Langley’s employees conducted extensive research, analysis and tunnel testing to better understand what happened, which was critical to the accident investigation and successful return to flight.
NASA PHOTO BY DAVID C. BOWMAN
a school bus-sized satellite designed to provide longterm experimental data on the effects of the space environment – which involved radiation exposure, extreme temperature fluctuations, and collisions with space matter – on man-made materials and systems, as well as on living seeds and spores. The LDEF, originally conceived by Langley engineers in 1970, was the culmination of years of study and interest in the idea of an orbiting laboratory for scientific experiments, communications, and observation, and as an assembly depot and relay station for lunar and planetary missions. NASA approved the LDEF in 1974, shortly after the launch of the first U.S. space station, Skylab.
A team at NASA Langley tests models of the Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA’s heavy-lift launch vehicle – to measure unsteady aerodynamic pressures and forces exerted on the SLS vehicle.
The LDEF remained in orbit for more than five-and-a-half years – it was retrieved from orbit by the Space Shuttle Columbia in January 1990 – and was home to 57 science and technology experiments by government and academic researchers from around the world. Around the time of the LDEF’s launch, the idea of an
international space station began to gather momentum. President Ronald Reagan gave NASA approval to move forward with the plan to build it – Space Station Freedom, as it was known for a short time – and to invite the participation of international partners. The project that evolved into today’s International Space Station (ISS) met with several obstacles and delays before the launch of its first module, the Russian Zarya Functional Cargo Block, in November 1998. Meanwhile, Langley’s design and construction of the LDEF has evolved into a portfolio of skills, including studies of materials, structures, components, and assembly methods, that allow people to live and work in space.
Back to the Non-Routine: Toward Mars
The grievous losses of people aboard the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia have demonstrated that there’s nothing “routine” about space flight. But before the program ended in 2011, the space shuttle enabled space travel that was, if not routine, reliable and regularly scheduled. The program ushered in the era of on-time deliveries of people and cargo to low Earth orbit, an era that has seen a sustained
NASA Langley has splash tested the Orion space capsule test article at the historic Landing and Impact Research Facility gantry. These tests simulate water landings and detect forces that the structure and its crew would experience.
human presence aboard the ISS for nearly two decades. After achieving such a milestone, many at NASA were understandably itchy. It had always been their job to explore frontiers, but nobody
had traveled beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. In a 2004 speech at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush reminded Americans that their space program hadn’t built a new crewed space vehicle in nearly 25 years, and announced a bold new course for the agency: “… to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system.” In 2014, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden publicly offered a refinement of that objective:
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M T S A EROSPACE SOLU T IONS
NASA’s long-term goal, he said, was to establish a permanent human presence on Mars. Langley and NASA’s other space flight resources have thrown themselves behind the ambitious goals, both short and long term, of the Mars Exploration Program. In the Langley wind tunnels, structural, aerodynamic, and aerothermal analyses of the launch vehicle designed for future lunar and Mars missions, the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), are underway. “We’re doing a tremendous amount of wind tunnel testing and computational analysis of the aerodynamics to certify that vehicle,” said Walt Engelund, Director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate at Langley Research Center. “Langley is probably the biggest provider of that set of technology for SLS development.” Langley’s EDL expertise, which has enabled several successful robotic landings through the ultra-thin Mars atmosphere, will prove crucial to crewed missions to Mars, which will necessarily require delivery of larger payloads. Langley engineers have developed an ingenious device – the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) – that’s both larger and lighter than a solid heat shield that could be packed into a shroud atop the SLS. The HIAD consists of a series of concentric inflatable rings, resembling huge inner tubes. Packed tightly in the shroud, the rings are designed to self-inflate on deployment and form a single aeroshell, or heat shield. “They have a flexible thermal protection blanket that wraps around them,” explained Engelund. “And that gets inflated into a very rigid structure around the payload. It enables
you to package much larger payloads inside a launch vehicle shroud and take bigger things to Mars. Otherwise, you’re going to have to develop bigger rockets and bigger shrouds, and the costs will increase exponentially.” A 10-foot-wide HIAD performed perfectly in a reentry test launched on July 23, 2012, from Wallops Island. The experimental reentry vehicle was shot 290 miles into space and returned at a speed of Mach 10. Langley Research Center brings several specialized skills to the Mars Exploration Program, including the design and analysis of strong, lightweight materials; in-space assembly of structures; protection from space radiation; and the design of structures and habitation modules that will allow astronauts to live and work comfortably in space. One of Langley’s most significant responsibilities in the Mars Exploration Program is to lead the development of a system it hopes will never be needed: NASA’s Orion Launch Abort System (LAS), the emergency escape capability that will take astronauts in the Orion crew module away from the rocket if something goes wrong. Designed to ensure astronauts’ safety up to an altitude of 300,000 feet, the system consists of an abort motor, which will separate Orion from the rocket, and a jettison motor that will then separate the LAS from the spacecraft. Engineers at Orbital ATK’s facility in Elkton, Maryland, completed a successful test of the Orion LAS motor in May 2017 – another step toward a crewed flight of the SLS and Orion together. As it helps NASA chart a course to Mars, Langley Research Center, in its tests of the
Orion spacecraft, evokes memories of its storied past: Langley’s enormous gantry, once used by Apollo astronauts to simulate landing and walking on the Moon, has been transformed into the Landing and Impact Research Facility, featuring a winch system for lifting the Orion spacecraft and a 20-foot-deep basin below the gantry for splashdown simulations. Orion sailed through its first uncrewed suborbital flight in 2014, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, but future missions will involve both faster reentry and crews of up to four people. In spring 2016, a series of water-impact tests were conducted at Langley, simulating different sets of variables for Orion’s parachute-assisted splashdowns: wind and weather conditions, velocities, and wave heights. Crash-test dummies were fastened securely inside Orion, dressed in modified Advanced Crew Escape Suits. The Orion drop tests were a reminder of the meticulous matrix of expertise required to conduct such a mission, the culmination of a three-year collaboration between Langley Research Center, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Kennedy Space Center, Ames Research Center, and Lockheed Martin, the Orion prime contractor. Each drop, over in a matter of seconds, was preceded by thousands of hours of preparation and study. To the visionary researchers at Langley Research Center, the sight of Orion at Langley, where America’s crewed space program began, offers a chance to reflect with pride on Langley’s role in both the future and the past of American spaceflight.
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
NASA Langley research produces wide-ranging benefits By J.R. Wilson
NASA critics from time to time ask why the United States spends so much money in space when there are major problems that need to be addressed on Earth. It is an argument that overlooks the space- and aviation-related developments that have benefitted a range of civilian and commercial activities. NASA supporters are fond of drawing attention to the fact that the agency’s budget is only about a half of 1 percent of the overall federal budget. Yet NASA does a lot with what could be considered – in relative terms – a shoestring budget. What’s more, that doesn’t even take into account the multitude of technologies, science, materials, and other spaceand aviation-related developments that have spun off into everyday civilian and commercial use. That is especially true – although perhaps more difficult to recognize – with the output of a research organization, such as NASA’s Langley Research Center, than from NASA’s more publicly visible flight centers, such as Johnson and Kennedy. For more than 40 years, NASA has highlighted these Earth-bound benefits in its annual Spinoff publication, a record of the agency’s Technology Transfer Program. While Spinoff’s tagline is “Bringing NASA Technology Down to Earth,” not everything at NASA is space related. At Langley, for example, research areas include materials and coatings, sensors and detectors, aeronautics and software, with most of the technology transfer licenses involving materials and coatings. Langley is the most prolific of NASA’s nine active centers in terms of patents licensed to industry and available
for licensing, with 239 spinoffs since 1976, averaging five per year. Jennifer Hubble-Viudez, a licensing specialist in the Office of Innovation, part of Langley’s Office of Strategic Analysis, Communications and Business Development, described the process by which intellectual property patented by Langley makes its way into the commercial world, in line with the Technology Transfer Program’s own tagline: “Improving life on Earth, one technology at a time.” “When a business wants to use our technology, they do that through a license, usually a commercial license for a specific product or service, each of which is evaluated on its own. There is no set rate, but they normally pay an up-front fee at signing, then annual minimums each year and a royalty-based annual fee based on sales,” she explained. “NASA Langley owns the intellectual patents. Provisions are sometimes put in place for the inventor to work with the licensee and, if during the course of that work, new information or a new technology is developed, a joint ownership agreement goes into effect, sharing ownership of that property with the business. NASA also gets the benefit of learning what the business is doing, which helps further our research. When the
The LZR Racer® swimsuit by licensee SpeedoUSA. These racing swimsuits designed for U.S. Olympic swimmers were based on Langley’s experience studying friction and drag. In March 2008, athletes wearing the LZR Racer broke 13 world records.
license fees are paid, they are distributed among the inventors as well as Langley.” NASA’s charter in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act called for the new agency to establish a technology transfer program. After 60 years, that has resulted in a great deal of
government-funded space, military, and aviation-related technology becoming available for public use. “We have a pretty stringent process. We have a team of civil servants and contractors who determine what is commercially viable. They meet monthly
to discuss those, then decide whether to go forward with patenting or to release it open source,” Hubble-Viudez said. “As civil servants, our people are required to electronically report any ideas they have and get them on the record, then go to the monthly meeting.
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Workers add grooves to the main runway at Congonhas International Airport, Sao Paulo, Brazil. The grooves, a NASA development, improve drainage and create additional friction to aid aircraft braking, and are used on highways as well.
“We also have a team of contractors responsible for assessments. They get information about a technology we have been working on, then cold-call companies to see if they might be interested in licensing it. If you have more than one interested, they will be at different levels of funding and development and ways they want to use the technology, all of which go into the type of license issued. I know of one versatile sensor – SansEC (without electrical connectivity) – that has had seven or eight different licenses issued.” While Langley does not conduct research specifically targeted for commercial licensing, she said its mission within NASA is so diverse, it can touch virtually anything. One example of how NASA researchers work not only with Langley’s technology specialists, but also outside agencies is a research effort to determine if space-age flexible heatshield materials that are able to withstand high heat could be used
to protect firefighters. When 19 firefighters died in a wildfire in Arizona in 2013, Langley engineers reached out to the U.S. Forest Service about working together to help create a new emergency fire shelter. A team of Forest Service and Langley researchers has tested a number of possible shelter designs that include materials developed for spacecraft. The Forest Service is expected to approve a new emergency fire shelter design by next year. Langley’s Technology Transfer Program website [technology-larc.ndc.nasa.gov] offers a wealth of information on Langley patents available for licensing, a Technology Marketplace with some detail about potential commercial applications, as well as links to contacts, licensing procedures, and other information through its Technology Gateway. Langley also offers college students insight into the tech transfer and licensing program through its Technology Transfer University (T2U), which enables business students to create mar-
ket assessments and business plans using the center’s hightech patent portfolio. They also have access to NASA scientists and innovators, who provide a unique and detailed look into the technologies on which they are working. “Through the T2U program, NASA Langley is helping to educate young entrepreneurs, tomorrow’s industry leaders, about the benefits of using federal government research and development assets in commercial applications,” according to the website. As to the overall technology transfer effort, Langley’s website sums it up in a single sentence: “Through technology licensing and other partnerships, we can create new technologies and relationships that can be mutually valuable in reducing R&D costs, expanding capabilities, accelerating solutions to technical challenges, and creating new products.” Langley’s Technology Transfer Program involves virtually every area of research in which the center is or has been involved, including: • Aeronautics – The design, construction and operation of aircraft based on the scientific study or art of flight • Electrical and Electronics – The scientific and technological development, behavior and application of electronic
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
devices, circuits and systems involving the flow of electrons in semiconductors, gaseous media or a vacuum. • Environment – The development of devices, processes and systems that protect and preserve the sustainability of natural resources and positively influence the growth, development and survival of a given organism, population or ecological community through scientific study of the behavioral contribution of the air, water, minerals, organisms and all other external factors surrounding and affecting an ecological system. • Health, Medicine and Biotechnology – The development and manufacture of a technique or product to provide for the maintenance of a healthy level of physical, mental, and psychological fitness. The use of organic substances that are only existing in or derived from plants, animals or other living tissue, organisms or microorganisms to biologically engineer a compound or substance to improve lives. The use of inorganic substances to perform chemical processing or to produce other materials that improve lives, industrial processes, and the environment. • Information Technology and Software – The development, implementation and maintenance of computer hardware and software systems to produce, store, organize, analyze, model, simulate and communicate information electronically.
• Instrumentation – The development, manufacturing and utilization of instruments used in science and industry to monitor an application so that information about the application’s progress, performance and status is captured and reported. • Manufacturing – The development of processes, devices and systems to make goods and wares by manual labor or machinery on a large or small scale. • Materials and Coatings – The development of substances as raw matter to be composed of or to be used as a constituent element in the processing of various products. • Mechanical and Fluid Systems – The development of devices controlled or operated by or as if by a machine, machinery or human via the influence of physical forces or substances capable of flowing and changing shape at a steady rate when acted upon by a force so as to automatically execute human tasks. • Optics – Based on the branch of physical science that studies the properties and phenomena of both visible and invisible light, the development, design and building of devices, processes or systems for the generation, propagation and implementation of the nature and behavior of electromagnetic light. • Power Generation and Storage – The development of devices, processes and systems that generate and store electrical, mechanical or fluid power or energy. • Propulsion – The development, design and build of machinery and fluids that propel or thrust, or are configured to do so, by means of force generated from mechanical, electrical or fluid power or energy. • Robotics, Automation and Control – Mechanical devices or machines that resemble a human or are designed to replace human beings semi- or fully-autonomously by performing a variety of complex or routine mechanical tasks, either on command or by being programmed in advance. • Sensors – Mechanical or electronic devices used
PICTURE D TOM VIACREDIT WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Two differing wingtip designs, a winglet on a Boeing 737-800 (foreground) and a wing fence on an Airbus A319, achieve the same end, of increasing efficiency and decreasing fuel burn, employing research pioneered by Langley’s Richard T. Whitcomb.
Rob Bryant, a senior researcher at NASA Langley, examines a lab model of a cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device. Bryant is the inventor of a high-tech aerospace plastic called LaRC-SI that is resistant to chemicals and withstands extreme hot and cold temperatures. The technology was developed for an aerospace high-speed research program, but among its other applications now serves as the insulation material on one of the thinnest left-heart leads available for a CRT.
to measure or receive stimulus in the form of light, temperature, pressure, sound, radiation level or the like, convert that stimulus into an electronic signal and transmit the signal to a measuring or control instrument “A lot of our products have a low TRL [Technology Readiness Level] and it takes a lot of R&D to get it to a point where it can be used. So we have other licenses that are less expensive, such as the start-up license that gives a new company three years with no fees,” Hubble-Viudez said. “There also are short-term evaluation licenses, if the company is not sure the technology will really work the way they need. Those are for 12 months with a fixed fee of $2,500. If at the end of 12 months they believe it will work as needed, then it can be converted to a commercial license – or sooner, if they prefer.” “We currently have 53 licenses in place, including 294 Langley-developed technologies, and generally have about 300 patents pending at any given time that are available for licensing,” she added. “Overall, NASA has about 1,200 patents available for
licensing, with about a quarter of those coming from Langley. Each center collects annual royalties and fees. “Of that, money that does not go to the inventors goes to the Technology Transfer Office, which reinvests in the research programs,” said Hubble-Viudez. Some of the most interesting technology transfers to come out of Langley’s research programs have included: • a polymer coating researcher Rob Bryant originally created in 2008 for resins and composites for high-speed aircraft, but since then has been used to coat at least half-a-million heart pacemakers implanted in human patients. The devices resynchronize contractions of the heart’s ventricles by sending tiny electrical impulses to the heart muscle, helping it pump blood throughout the body more efficiently • fetal heart monitors • aerodynamic racing swimsuits designed for U.S. Olympic swimmers. Based on Langley’s experience studying friction and drag, the LZR Racer® by licensee Speedo USA reduces skin friction drag 24 percent over Speedo’s previous racing
suit. In March 2008, athletes wearing the LZR Racer broke 13 world records • Extreme Low Frequency Acoustic Measurement System, a portable device for detecting atmospheric turbulence, aircraft wake vortices, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, explosions, human movement, etc. • a device to more accurately measure localized air pressure for improved weather forecasting • an aircraft wing design stemming from work by a Langley engineer in the 1960s and ’70s that produced a significant increase in subsonic efficiency. It’s used on most commercial aircraft flying today, saving the airline industry billions of dollars in fuel every year • aerodynamics for trucks and automobiles, improving highway stability and reducing fuel consumption • the cutting of grooves in concrete to increase traction and prevent injury, first developed in the mid-1980s to reduce aircraft accidents on wet runways and later expanded to highway and pedestrian applications by
A Proud NASA Langley Research Center Partner Thomas Nelson Community College congratulates NASA Langley Research Center on 100 years of reaching new heights to benefit humankind. Since 1967, Thomas Nelsonâ€™s long-standing partnership with NASA Langley has produced a skilled workforce in the fields of Science, Engineering and Technology. As Thomas Nelson celebrates 50 years of higher education and workforce training on the Virginia Peninsula, we honor T. Melvin Butler (pictured far right), former NASA Langley personnel officer and the first Thomas Nelson Community College Local Board Chair, who founded this ongoing partnership.
Find out more at www.tncc.edu
QuinStar Proudly Supports NASA with Milimeter Wave Innovation - Supplying components and subsystems and modules for ongoing programs -Engineering new technology for future programs
Congratulations NASA LaRC on 100 Years of Global Leadership
The SansEC sensor: It doesn’t look like much more than a piece of copper foil cut in a fancy spiral pattern. But don’t let the modest appearance fool you. It’s an open-circuit, resonant sensor that needs no electrical connections (thus the name SansEC or “without electrical connection”). It can simultaneously measure different physical phenomena — temperature and fluid level, for example — and functions even when badly damaged. Langley’s SansEC sensor technology has been licensed by more than 10 companies for a variety of commercial applications.
industry, reducing skidding and stopping distance and increasing a vehicle’s cornering ability in curves • advances in bio-feedback • winglets are a drag-reducing technology advanced through the research of Langley engineer Richard T. Whitcomb in the 1970s. Although the upturned ends on aircraft wings were not incorporated onto large airliners until the late 1980s, today they are common on commercial and civilian aircraft, reducing fuel burn by billions of dollars and jet engine carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 21.6 million tons • improved carbon monoxide detection • a device that allows electronic game players to augment traditional controller or video inputs by adjusting their physiological state, such as heart rate and breathing • Fiber Optic Shape Sensing Technology, offering 10 times the accuracy of comparable optical techniques for robotics, tracking, integrated vehicle systems, etc.
• Compact Active Vibration Control System, a small actuator/sensor that can be located anywhere on large flexible structures to sense and reduce vibrations and noise • Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EBF3), an augmentation to additive manufacturing (3-D printing) designed to build complex parts with substantially less raw material and greater speed • wound healing facilitated by electrical activity, a bandage – stimulated by body heat and cell growth – that combines faster, active healing with wound protection while minimizing infection and related complications • non-invasive methods of accurately measuring intracranial pressure for patients with head injuries that may affect subarachnoidal fluid pressure around the brain or who have undergone brain surgery, using ultra-low power ultrasonic wave intensities that greatly reduce possible tissue damage • an all-organic, high-performance electroactive device
fabricated with a novel single-wall carbon nanotube for use in prosthetics, artificial muscles, artificial diaphragms and valves, active Braille displays, chiropractic patches, and a wide range of other applications, medical and non-medical “Licensees typically are given eight hours of free time with the inventor(s), although that is not part of the license agreement, no matter what type of license it is. If they want more time, the licensee does have to pay an additional fee,” Hubble-Viudez said. “The biggest message, from an historical perspective, is that there is a Technology Transfer Program at Langley, which may not be known by everyone who could benefit from a license. This program has been in place for decades, has worked very well, and will continue to operate in the future. We believe we are helping the Langley researchers and inventors and helping businesses, NASA, and the nation take advantage of the smart brains we have in the agency.”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Shaping the Future Of Earth, Air, and Space By Edward Goldstein
“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” To imagine the future of NASA’s Langley Research Center, perhaps it’s best to assume that a past of historic accomplishments is prelude to another century in which Langley engineers and scientists positively shape the agency’s future from the ground up. The center that helped conquer the sound barrier more than 50 years ago will no doubt also help make cleaner and quieter
– George Bernard Shaw supersonic flight a routine part of future air travel. The determined researchers who developed the instruments that helped scientists better understand the “Ozone Hole” problem will continue to pursue scientific knowledge vital to understanding atmospheric conditions and our ever-changing climate. And the heirs to the visionary Langley engineers who made human spaceflight and
The “Mars Ice Home,” a large inflatable dome surrounded by a shell of water ice, is just one of many potential concepts for sustainable habitation on the Red Planet. The idea came from a team of NASA experts and passionate designers and architects from industry and academia who came together to work on the challenge at Langley’s Engineering Design Studio.
robotic exploration of Mars possible will help establish human beachheads on Mars.
At the Spear Point of NASA’s New Aviation Horizons Initiative
Even prior to Langley’s 100th anniversary, policy decisions made at the highest levels of NASA were giving shape to ambitious goals that required Langley’s essential participation if they are to be realized in coming years.
For example, in 2016, NASA announced its New Aviation Horizons Initiative. This 10year plan aims to achieve major reductions in fuel use, emissions, and noise through improved aircraft design and operations, including the return of quieter supersonic aircraft. The plan leans on Langley expertise in air vehicle and systems design to work with industry and other NASA centers on the demonstration and deployment of several flight demonstration vehicles, or “X-planes.” These will show-
case technologies such as advanced, high-efficiency engine designs, new methods for building pressurized composite structures, and advanced propulsion-airframe integration techniques. Seventy years after the first X-plane – the Bell X-1 – broke the sound barrier, the X-57, the first all-electric aircraft, is being tested at Langley. The next potential X-plane, called QueSST, or Quiet Supersonic Transport flight demonstrator, has Langley working with Lockheed Martin on a design
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
An artist’s concept of a Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) X-plane design. The award of a preliminary design contract is the first step toward the possible return of supersonic passenger travel – but this time quieter and more affordable. a lot of the geometry and the sizing of these types of vehicles are born within the Aeronautics Systems Branch,” he said. “That’s our bread and butter to do the studies and designs of these vehicles before we start partnering with private industry and moving the concepts along to actual testing phases and experimental phases.” Langley is also at the forefront of research to hasten the time when unmanned aircraft sys-
tems (UAS), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, are safely integrated into the national air space system. A key challenge Langley engineers are taking on is determining the methods and technologies needed for drones to safely fly beyond visual line of sight. This development will be key to more ubiquitous use of UAS for package delivery, precision agriculture, and wildlife monitoring, among others. Using New Technologies to Upgrade Our Understanding of Earth
Langley researchers are already investigating how to use new technologies such as UASs and small satellites to advance Langley’s atmospheric science mission.
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to change the shape of airplane bodies to reduce the shock waves that produce sonic booms. Brandon Litherland, of Langley’s Aerospace Vehicle Design & Mission Analysis Group in the Aeronautics Systems Analysis Branch, works on the X-57’s unique folding propeller concepts. He’s excited not only about the project, but also the future of Langley aeronautics research. “In the overall scheme, many of the New Horizons concepts are based on trade studies and on designs that are the brain children of studies that were done at NASA Langley,” he said. “When they talk about things like quiet supersonic technology and distributed electric propulsion and things like hyper-clean body vehicles that have very strange geometries compared to the things we’re used to flying in,
DZYNE TECHNOLOGIES IMAGE BY BRENDAN KENNELLY
“We’ve been working with our Langley colleagues on the aeronautics side who have expertise in autonomous flight and long-standing connections with the UAV industry. We’ve been successful in starting a dialogue about the next generation of UAVs, where hopefully you have less need for control, like you do with satellites,” said David Young, director of Langley’s Science Directorate. “You can utilize UASs that are out of the commercial airline corridors and do great science without having to go into space,” he said. “In a place like Greenland, where you have scientific objectives that are either temporarily or spatially defined, UAVs would be phenomenal. Or if you want to devise UAVs that are intelligent enough to do targeted direct science, you could
A 6 percent scale model of a Boeing blended wing body design is tested in the 14-by-22Foot Subsonic Tunnel at Langley. The test is part of NASA’s ongoing research, in partnership with industry, to develop greener, quieter, and faster aircraft. program them to look for certain phenomena and navigate themselves to where they need to be to achieve the science. I think there’s a real future there.” Young also pointed out that Langley is working with the National Research Council’s effort to develop a decadal plan for earth science and applications from space. Among Langley’s aspirations, said Young, would be support for a satellite version of SAGE,
an instrument responsible for monitoring the Earth’s ozone layer, and a future mission to improve the accuracy of existing Earth-viewing missions in ways that expand their scientific and societal benefits. Young sees great promise in a technology that Langley helped pioneer, the use of active remote sensing in the form of LIDAR – light detection and ranging – for measuring the constituents of the atmosphere. “With three-dimensional wind profiling – getting data from space – you can improve weather forecasts,” he said. “We’re working on LIDAR measurements that are key to weather predictions and understanding the changing Earth.” “We’re hoping to continue the evolution of a follow-on to CALIPSO [Cloud-Aerosol Lidar
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NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
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and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation mission], to advance LIDAR technologies not only from the point you can identify aerosols in the atmosphere, but to where you can identify exactly what they are in terms of their composition, and that’s going help eliminate uncertainty in the climate forecasts,” Young continued. “These are all areas where we’ve had strength in the past,” he said, “and we’ve always had an eye on the future to see where we could help knock down the next tall pole in our analysis of the Earth.”
Building for the Future
Technologies like those Young just described can’t be fully developed without the
Above: The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility scheduled to open in 2017 will allow NASA Langley to replace and consolidate a number of aging data centers and will enhance the center’s computational strength. Right: The facility is named for former NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, seen here after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nov. 24, 2015. proper facilities. As Langley enters its second century, one good indicator of the institution’s future is NASA’s commitment to an ambitious project to keep the center in the forefront of 21st century research facilities.
The 20-year Langley revitalization strategy, already well underway, will ensure the center remains responsive to evolving programs, projects, and technologies with state-of-theart, energy-efficient buildings. Langley’s revitalization was driven by the fact that Langley has been around longer than any other NASA center. The center’s oldest building is nearly 80 years old, and the average age of facilities is close to 40. Buildings already completed
include a new headquarters, an integrated engineering services building and a 40,000-squarefoot computational research facility named in honor of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Katherine G. Johnson, who personally attended the building’s naming ceremony in 2016. In April 2017, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and other VIPs gathered to break ground for what will be Langley’s newest building. The 175,000-square-foot Measurement Systems Laboratory will have about 40 modular labs for research and development functions such as electronics, lasers, clean rooms, and instrumentation in support of Langley’s mission activities. Future buildings being planned include a new flight dynamics research lab, a materials research lab, and an integrated systems development lab. The ongoing revitalization will serve as a factory for new ideas and technologies that will drive critical contributions and allow Langley to lead the way for the next 100 years. Airships Over Venus and Base Camps on Mars
As movies like The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures remind us, much of the impetus for the early space program’s success came from the tireless problem-solving of Langley scientists and engineers. And for those Langley people today who dream of designing the next great spaceship or charting the most efficient flight path to the planets, the possibilities seem endless. Langley’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate (SACD) does just that – it examines existing systems and defines futuristic architectures, vehicles, or operational concepts – that help inform decision-makers about potential ideas and solutions, the art of the possible, for challenges that lie ahead. One concept that drew a lot of public excitement and attention was called HAVOC, the High-Altitude Venus Operational Concept. One day we may want to know a lot more about Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect, so the people in SACD came up with a futuristic, conceptual notion to do just that. “As an internal research and development program, we wanted to look at what it would take to explore Venus with humans, and determine what
kind of technology would be needed to make that happen,” said Dale Arney, of Langley’s Aerospace Vehicle Design and Mission Analysis Group in the Space Mission Analysis Branch. “The concept is for an airship about twice the size of a Goodyear blimp and about half the size of the Hindenburg that could carry two crew for 30 days in the Venusian upper atmosphere. The airship would have a launch vehicle strapped to the bottom of it, so that at the end of the 30 days they would get into that vehicle and ascend back up to their in-space habitat.” While Venus is clearly not at the top of NASA’s human exploration plans, an animation of the conceptual mission attracted more than 739,000 views on the NASA Langley YouTube channel. The goal of sending humans to Mars, however, is likely to be achieved in the coming decades, with Langley’s active participation. “If you look at it from the perspective of the technology you need to get to Mars, you will see us contribute by making sure that the vehicles are as lightweight as possible so we can save on the energy needed at launch,” said J.F. Barthelemy, Langley’s chief technologist. “You are going to see us contribute to protection from harmful radiation – we will design it into the vehicle going to Mars and the habitats on Mars. And you are going to see us contribute heavily in the process of designing the entry, descent, and landing vehicles, the materials that are going to withstand the type of heat and heat processes that we’ll encounter when we start entry with a payload of 20 metric tons, not the 1 metric ton that we’ve landed with up until this point. So, we’re not only looking at what kind of architecture and what kinds of vehicles need to be in place, but also at all of the contributing technologies.” Beyond just getting to Mars, Langley engineers are also looking at the hard work of keeping an expeditionary crew safely on the planet’s surface, not just for a few days, but for months. “We’re looking at concepts for the Martian surface – what are those habitats going to be looking like, how many do we need, and how big should they be,” said Barthelemy. “We also have been doing quite a bit on the technologies that would make those habitats possible. We’re looking at inflatables because we want to be able to pack those habitats easily and deploy them when we are on the surface. Also, we are looking at what
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
it takes to protect the humans once they are in the habitat from harmful radiation. 3D printing of materials for habitats is certainly one of the approaches that is being considered. We do a fair amount of advanced manufacturing here, particularly the application of metallic and composite materials. And it is a natural extension to bring that into the realm of in-space manufacturing and particularly habitat manufacturing.” The best building material for a new home on Mars may lie in an unexpected material: ice. Starting with a proposed concept called “Mars Ice Dome,” a group of NASA experts and passionate designers and architects from industry and academia came together at Langley’s Engineering Design Studio in 2016 to work on the challenge. The project was competitively selected through the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) Center Innovation Fund. The ice dome could be a way to shield astronauts from harmful radiation without having to build underground habitats. This lightweight structure could be transported and deployed with simple robotics, then filled with water before a crew arrives.
This artist’s rendering of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept shows airships that could carry two crew for 30 days in the Venusian upper atmosphere.
This is just one of many potential concepts for sustainable habitation on the Red Planet in support of the agency’s journey to Mars. Barthelemy added that Langley planners are excited about taking flight concepts into the work of Mars exploration, including a vertical takeoff and landing Mars Electric Flyer drone concept that is planned to be drop-tested over rugged terrain in Oregon in 2017. “This is a fairly small electrically powered type of drone that would obviously recharge on Mars and be able to carry a small payload that would basically be an extension to rovers or to seek out areas for possible human habitation,” he said. Because of Langley … A Fundamentally Different World
Because anniversaries are as much about the future as
the past, a number of Langley people were asked what they thought a citizen some 30 to 50 years from now might say about Langley’s contributions to the world of their time. Here are a few of the responses: “I think you are going to see in 30 years a transportation system that’s going to be fundamentally different,” said Barthelemy. “You’re going to see a much better integration between ground transportation and air transportation. This could have a historically fundamental impact on how you look at the landscape of the country and the world in terms of the division between urban and rural areas and how we move from one to the other. And I think you will see the same integration between Earth transportation and space transportation, and Langley will be right in the middle of that.” Brandon Litherland observed that half of the world’s population growth in the next 50 years will come in developing nations in Africa and elsewhere. “If we advance these highly efficient small aerial vehicles to the point of high affordability and we can start distributing them through the world, then things like deserts, jungles, tundra, rivers and mountains
won’t be hindrances to human travel anymore and we can just pop around at will,” he said. “If you bring that kind of integration and infrastructure to global communities, it will be a complete game-changer to human society.” Drawing on a hero from Langley’s past, Dale Arney said, “The lunar orbit rendezvous concept was developed by Langley’s John Houbolt. He said if you want to go to the moon, here’s how you do it. I think in the space side, you’re going to see the ideas of how to solve real problems coming out of Langley, the strategic view of how to do space exploration
The Mars Electric Reusable Flyer is a concept for an autonomous, vertical-launch drone to scout Mars from the air for minutes at a time, recover aboard a rover, and recharge for multiple flights.
and where do we go from here. That legacy from John Houbolt to today is going to persist. Finally, Hillary Blakeley, a young engineer in the center’s Aerospace Flight Systems, Mechanical Systems Branch, also turned to past Langley heroes for inspiration about the future.
“To me, looking at Katherine Johnson and the Hidden Figures women, we think, ‘Look at the amazing people who came out of here.’ Thirty years from now maybe someone then will say, ‘Look at the people who have come out and created all these ideas that have enabled all this technology,’” she said. “I’m challenged every day to think innovatively. The leadership around here is open to the concept that the next big crazy idea can really come from anywhere. So, I think 30 years from now people will say, ‘Look at how they put people in a position to create these amazing things that we take for granted today.’”
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER 1917-2017
Published on Jun 28, 2017
In the hundred years since its establishment, NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC) has been at the leading edge of aerospace achievement, s...