Langley Research Center Tour

On November 8, 2011, I was privledged to be selected to tour the NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) in a group of 50 Twitter followers in NASA’s 30th tweetup. An AP reporter/photographer tagged along, getting the perspective of guests as we went along, and produced an article on the day has showed up in newspapers across the country and as far away as Chile, Columbia, and Panama.

I could ramble through all the cool things we experienced but I’ll let the scientists and engineers making these things happen each day tell the story…

facilities visited during the tweetup, click to enlarge

We arrived at the main gates and received a warm welcome from LaRC News Chief Rob Wyman. Rob got us sorted out and led a convoy through security where our identification was checked and we received our badges turned left onto Taylor street for the short drive to the building (#1 on the map to the right) housing the Cafeteria, NASA Exchange, and NACA room which served as our home base of sorts during the day

The day started out in the NACA room with an overview of the Langley Research Center and the work going on there.  From making aircraft safer, to all the contributions to manned and unmanned spaceflight to supersonic passenger flight:

Gemini/Apollo Era gantry used by astronauts for docking training

We stepped outside and boarded a bus which took us to the Flight Research Laboratory (aka building 1244, aka the Hangar, aka #2 on the map above).  This massive building was once the largest of its kind in the world and built to house massive aircraft.  The hangar also was used in the 60’s for training and research during the Gemini and Apollo programs including the Rendezvous Docking Simulator (which remains stowed in the ceiling today).  Today the hanger houses aircraft used in flight as well as atmospheric research.  Flight Services manager Bruce Fisher gave us an overview of those aircraft as well as some of the history behind the building.

Researcher Mike Obland  took us through how the aircraft near the back of the hangar are used to study atmospheric conditions using instruments on board that both collect air and particulate mater around the aircraft as well as take measurements using lasers show downward.  Recently these aircraft have been studying air quality around the Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas.

The next stop was lunch (#3 on the map) where we enjoyed a detailed talk by former shuttle pilot Susan Kilrain.  This Navy test pilot, veteran of 2 shuttle flights (STS-84 and STS-94), and mother of 4 gave a candid view of life as an astronaut and her experiences working in space.  Susan was kind enough to autograph photos and pose for pictures as well.


tour winds around the wind tunnel

One of my favorite stops along the tour was the National Transonic Facility(NTF, #4 on the map) where intricate models of commercial (like the Boeing 777) and military aircraft along with the occasional spacecraft (like the space shuttle) and submarine are tested in a closed loop wind tunnel that can achieve speed just below and just above the speed of sound.

wind tunnel test model

Fans of 83’s The Right Stuff know that this is a particularly troublesome area where air just doesn’t behave very well so this is a critical facility in researching the safety and efficiency of aircraft designs.  Researchers can cool the tunnel to -250 F using liquid nitrogen making the air denser which makes the scale models in this 8.2 foot wind tunnel behave like their full sized big sisters.  Facilty manager Roman Paryz gave an excellent overview of what goes on there:

CheeseIt at -200 F
CheeseIt at -200 F

Roman channeled Mr. Wizard as he provided a fun demonstration of some of the properties of liquid nitrogen that make it ideal for cooling the wind tunnel.  Using balloons, a tennis ball can and even a spare sock a tweep had in her purse, he showed us how liquid nitrogen chills things down really well, really quickly.  We are all treated to some cheese-its chilled in nitrogen which created some interesting effects when instantly warmed to body temp.

Wusk, Whitley and Snoopy on the IRV test article

The group then moved on to the Structures Lab (#5 on the map) where we heard from Mary Beth Wusk and Amanda Cutright about the  Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) and Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE 3).  This spacecraft outer shell is made from lightweight inflatable material to slow and protect reentry vehicles as they blaze through the atmosphere (Earths or others) at hypersonic speeds.

We explored full scale designs for expandable lunar habitats and then heard from Mia Siochi on her team’s emergent materials work.  She spoke of nano tubes replacing carbon fiber to make aircraft parts stronger and lighter, techniques to make metal parts more efficiently and stronger by building up rough versions of the part before milling instead of starting from a solid block of metal and removing 90% of it.  Siochi also showed off self healing materials that will help keep astronauts safe from micrometeoroids  and technologies to keep aircraft flight surfaces clean and slick to improve efficiency.

me and bobbing Orion capsule.

And then the stop we were all waiting for, the Landing Impact Research & Hydro Impact Basin Facility (#6 on the map).  Researcher Martin Annett took the group through testing activities at the facility including aircraft, rotorcraft and even a test with a NASCAR vehicle as well as the historic research and training done during the Apollo program on lunar landing as well as walking in reduced lunar gravity.  Martin then went over what was about to happen as the Orion capsule mockup was dropped as explosive bolts cut it loose at the right point.  Tweeps then mingled with more shuttle astronauts, NASA Edge personalities and administrators from other NASA centers visiting LaRC for meetings and ultimately this drop test.  The capsule ended up in “stable 2 position” (upside down) but Martin and other researchers assured us it was successful because the data the test was intended to collect was collected.  That data will be used to corroborate computer models with allowing further improvement of the models.

The Orion capsule drop test from my spot in the crowd:

The day ended at LaRC’s version of an officer’s club, Afterburners where tweeps and some of the PAO staff got to know each other a bit better.

All these videos are available in this YouTube playlist under the Creative Commons license.

beautiful, free printable 2012 x-ray astronomy calendar

The fine folks with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA’s flagship mission for X-ray astronomy, have created a beautiful 2012 calendar featuring supernova remnants, galaxies in all shapes & sizes and star clusters in our Milky Way. You can download for free and print out.  It’s available for both 11×17 and 8×10 paper.

for science educators, outreach volunteers, amateur astronomers, or maybe just me