Golden Era of Aeronautics, Part One

Image of Patrick Stoliker, Deputy Director of NASA Dryden Flight Research CenterPatrick Stoliker

Deputy Director 
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

On May 2, 1952—virtually 60 years ago—36 people boarded BOAC’s De Havilland Comet DH 106, known as “Yoke Peter” to its crew for last letters of its registration G-ALYP, took their seats and readied for a long journey. These were the first paying passengers of the modern jet age, departing London for a 7,000-mile trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. Powered by four Ghost jet engines (also made by De Havilland) and with a cruise speed listed at about 500 mph, the passengers rode in pressurized comfort. About the only significant difference between that day and now was the legroom and the ratio of passengers to fight attendants. But if we pay too much attention to the similarities we’ll miss what is remarkable about the span of time involved. It’s been 60 years since the first passengers rode on a jet airliner and we’re still flying at the same speeds and the same altitudes.

There was a brief interval during which the wealthy could travel at Mach 2 on the Concorde (slightly faster if they wanted to fly the Soviet Tu-144), but neither airplane was ever a commercial success: both were just items of national prestige.

If it seems as though little has changed in the last 60 years—I said seems—consider how much changed between 1903 and 1952: call it the first 50 years of flight. It was on a wintry day in 1903 that two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, succeeded where no one else had, on the sand dunes of Kill Devil, North Carolina. Wilbur and Orville Wright were hardly the only ones trying to figure out flight at that time; there were quite a few in the US and in Europe, and most were further along than the two brothers. Even worse for the brothers, their competitors seemed to be better educated or better funded, as in the case of Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian Institution, or at least further along in the quest. 

The brothers made up for this with an intellect that the made their lack of a high school diplomas irrelevant. They learned the value of a wind tunnel by building their own, and they were smart enough to figure out that everyone before them had been wrong about the relationship of lift, wing area, and velocity, to say nothing of airfoils shapes. They had that rarest of talents, what Eugene Ferguson called “engineering in the mind’s eye,” the ability to move back and forth between the abstract and the concrete when trying to solve an engineering problem. They recognized propellers as rotating wings in the process. They understood wing warping and, more importantly, figured out the vertical stabilizer as the solution to adverse yaw, which they encountered on their glider, and they managed to do so largely because of how they mingled the abstract and the concrete. With Charlie Taylor, they put together a 180 pound, 12 horsepower engine with a good enough thrust to weight ratio to fly. It was an ungainly airplane, unstable in all axes, and I’m certain that only the hours of practice with the gliders gave them the skills needed to control the airplane. Then again, the same goes for riding a bicycle: it too, is unstable and takes time to learn how to ride, but you are then rewarded with a contraption that is nimble as can be, as opposed to a four-wheeled wagon. Progress came quickly. Although canard configurations have returned, the Wright’s pursued their original aircraft configuration until 1909, when they added an elevator and larger vertical tails. The 1910 Wright Model B had no canard and engines with 28-42 hp (with a production run of about 100 airplanes).

Their competitors settled into the more conventional wing/rudder/elevator configurations and everywhere advancements in capabilities and performance quickly followed (ditching wing warping in favor of ailerons was a way to control the airplane and try and avoid the Wright’s patent). Aircraft manufacturers proliferated across Europe and the United States. Although we think of this as the era of the biplanes (and triplanes), monoplanes like the Nieuport 2 were being built by 1910! The Loughead Brothers (later Lockheed) formed their first aircraft company in 1912 in Santa Barbara. The first aviation meet in America was held in Los Angeles (Dominguez Hills) January 1910 and airplanes were still so relatively new enough that dirigibles were a huge draw even then.

The speed with which aeronautical technology developed is astonishing and I consider this first decade one of the golden eras of aeronautics. We made big steps from the first ‘practicable’ airplane to modern aircraft. War had much to do with this, as it often does–in this case it was WWI. That war brought the first monococque fuselage, the interrupter gear, vastly improved flight instruments, the first UAV (the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, whose flight was made possible by Lawrence Sperry’s autopilot of 1914), the first all metal aircraft (Junkers J1, J2, and finally, the truly functional J4), just to name a few. The rapidity of the developments and their dramatic appearances likely makes us think war is the prime driver in such changes. But if we look at the bigger picture, this seems to be less the case.

After all, the Wrights achieved flight in a period of peace and were themselves not driven by any war, even if their first customer was the US Army Signal Corps. The first four-engine aircraft, Igor Sikorsky’s Ilya Mourometz appeared in 1914 in Russia, before The War. It was during the interwar years, the period between WWI and WWII, that NASA’s predecessor agency, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) developed or assisted in developing some of the most fundamental changes to aeronautics, including retractable landing gear, the variable pitch propeller, deicing boots, engine cowlings, and the world famous NACA airfoils. It was in this same era that the first superchargers were developed to allow piston engines to gain higher altitudes (and speeds), and we saw the first genuine pressurized fuselages. It was in 1928—long before WWII began—that Englishman Frank Whittle conceived of the turbojet, and still before WWII that German Hans von Ohain succeeded in flying the world’s first turbojet, developed independently of Whittle. And while people first paid to travel by air before the War, it was in the interwar years that commercial aviation actually took off, so to speak.

Image of X-1WWII drove more aeronautical developments, of course, one of the subtler ones being the abandonment of seaplanes as the preferred way to carry passengers on long routes. The war resulted in plenty of new runways all over the world as well as an abundance of multi-engine aircraft with long range, making the big seaplanes a dying breed. It also helped that long-range navigation and radar approaches were improved and created, respectively, because of WWII. Piston engine/propeller aircraft had been having trouble with the transonic realm before WWII; figuring out supersonic flight was the next big challenge, and while folks in the Army Air Corps and the NACA expected it to be a big challenge, I don’t think they realized just how big the leap into the unknown would be. Getting to Mach 1 could be done with a turbojet engine, but if you were in a hurry to do it—and the AAF was—you were going to need a rocket plane. Jet engines of the era simply weren’t powerful or reliable enough to do the job-yet. This led to the Bell X-1, two X-1s actually, and the quest for supersonic flight. This was dawn of the golden age of flight research and X-planes, of almost infinite questions and purpose-designed aircraft like the X-3, the X-4, and the X-5.

Change came fast.

In 1961 TWA introduced in-flight movies on its Boeing 707s. By 1964 we had gone Mach 3 in a jet powered aircraft (A-12/SR-71), faster in rocket planes; we’d been to space and back in capsules and a space plane (the X-15), and supersonic flight was routine, at least for the military. In 1970 Boeing introduced first the “jumbo” airliner, the 747, and we’ve been packing in more and more passengers ever since. Yet we’re still flying at virtually the same speed and altitude as those 36 passengers on “Yoke Peter” in 1952. Have things really not changed? Are we in the doldrums, and if so, why?

Aerodynamic Trucks Make Me Smile

Image of David McBride, Director, Dryden Flight Research Center By David McBride

Director, NASA DrydenFlight Research Center

Over the last severalmonths, I have read many news stories and web accounts about rising and falling fuel pricesand how some companies are rediscovering efficiencies by making trucks more aerodynamically efficient. These makeme smile as it reminds me of the early aerodynamic truck studies conductedalmost 40 years ago at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards AirForce Base. Fuel efficiency in long haul trucks was never much of an issueuntil the first peacetime gas crisis, in the early 1970s. In 1973 anaeronautical engineer at NASA Dryden began musing over ways to cut theaerodynamic drag of over-the-road trucks. He led a small team of researcherswhose results had an extraordinary, if little recognized, impact.

The center’s firstexperiment involved a passenger van modified into a driving laboratory. Weattached an aluminum rectangular box to the vehicle—hence the nicknameShoebox—and over successive experiments, changed elements of the box.We rounded the vertical and horizontal corners, sealed the entireunderbody including the wheel wells, and even added a “boat tail” tothe rear of the vehicle, finding out what benefits each had on the overallaerodynamic drag. Road tests of the Shoebox, with rounded vertical andhorizontal corners front and back, lowered the vehicle’s aerodynamic drag by 54percent. Sealing the van’s underbody and wheel wells reduced drag another 15percent. Road test showed a mileage increase of between 15 and 25%. Mileage mayvary, of course, depending on conditions and styles, which is why Dryden’sengineers were fond of testing outside of wind tunnels.

Image at right: 1970s van fitted with square corners, top image, and round corners bottom. Tufts of yarn attached to the sides of the van indicate air flow around the vehicle.

Our second experiment wasconducted on a cab-over-engine tractor-trailer, again modified by rounding allof its front corners and edges. In addition, technicians attached sheet metalfairings over the cab’s roof and sides, reaching as far back as the trailer;this completely closed the open space between the cab and trailer. While stilllooking like a tractor-trailer, it was a radical departure from anything on theroad in the 1970s. Researchers found that in highway driving at 55 miles perhour, these changes resulted in 20 to 24 percent lower fuel consumption over anidentical but unmodified tractor-trailer they tested against it.

At the time of NASADryden’s research, which extended off-and-on until 1982, the majority oflong-haul tractors were cab-overs. This was because the Federal Aid Highway Actof 1956 – formally known as the National System of Interstate and DefenseHighways Act – placed a limit on the length on the total vehicle.

Image to the left: As depicted by this 1975 image, sheet metal is attached to a heavy haul truck rounding the front corners of the truck and adding a fairing between the cab and the trailer of the truck.

The Surface TransportationAssistance Act (1982), which came primarily in response to the impact of thegas crisis on the trucking industry, required states to permit trucks withtrailers as long as 48 feet on both interstate and intrastate highways, andeffectively ignored the tractor altogether. This small detail of the bill wasresponsible for the shift from cab-overs to conventional engine-in-fronttractors, a much more fuel-efficient design because of its shape.

In 1985 Kenworthintroduced the T600, the first tractor manufactured with factory-built fairingsthat reflected the empirical research done at NASA Dryden. It is encouraging tosee the continuing improvements to the shapes of both tractors and trailerstoday, all of which reflect research conducted at Dryden at the time orperformed at three universities under Dryden’s guidance.

Hence, when you see fairingsthat narrow the gap between tractor and trailer, side skirts on the trailer, orboat tails on the back of trailers, you’re looking at the results, in part, ofNASA and NASA-sponsored empirical research whose benefits have a tangibleimpact on our daily lives. It is especially gratifying when I think of the veryreal increases in fuel efficiency these trucks have realized, and the benefitswe all derive as a result

With Help From the Angel on the Christmas Tree

By Joseph Lapierre
Former Dryden Engineer
I worked at Dryden back in the sixties. For a while I was research project engineer on X-15-3. As I was looking through the Dryden Web pages the other day for a way to contact a test pilot, I got distracted by the research aircraft photo gallery. I searched through it to find aircraft I remembered and found a T-33 in the list. When I looked at the cockpit view I noticed a small white ball in the upper right corner of the instrument panel. I was shocked! I remember why that ball was there – because I’m the one who put it there.

Back in 1962, [Dryden engineer] Roger Winblade was touring the country on a hiring tour. He stopped at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, where I was about to graduate. I first found out he was there when a classmate told me Roger wanted to see me in the cafeteria. Roger explained to me he had found out from the dean of the physics department that I had been a pilot and wanted to hire me. He was head of the display section in the research division. He had a problem convincing test pilots to accept heads-up displays. He anticipated that, my being a pilot, I could help him get through to them.

When I arrived at the test center he quickly introduced me to Joe Walker. And Joe quickly let it be known he wasn’t too pleased, but he told me, “‘See that big guy sitting at that desk over there?’ I said, ‘yes.’ ‘Well, he can’t fly a straight final [approach] in an F-104 to save his ass.’ He told me that if I could come up with something to straighten out his final approaches, then I would be hired. I borrowed the Styrofoam head off of our Christmas tree angel, ran fishing string through it then ran the string through holes in the air-conditioning tubing around the top of the panel and to the back seat. I expected to be able to fly the back seat and work the ball from side to side as the pilot flew the final. Regs being regs, I did have to get checked out in the altitude chamber first.

When the ball was full right, it meant the pilot was flying 5 knots too fast on the approach, and full left meant 5 knots too slow. By the third final, Jack McKay was flying a straight final. I ran up to Joe’s office to give him the news, but he already knew because he was watching us from the roof with binoculars.

So, I was hired. I had a great relationship with Joe, Jack, Milt [Thompson] and the others. Fred Haise took me on a F-104 ride. He let me fly through Mach 1 then demonstrated a zero-G profile but overshot the altitude to 66,000 feet – with us wearing only flight coveralls!** I also changed the color of the X-15 panel from black to a pale green – but that’s another great story.

**above 50,000 feet, full-pressure suits were ordinarily required

Birds, TEDx, and the Mind's Boxes

Watch Al’s TEDxNASA presentation, “Toward More Bird-Like Flight: Thinking Outside the Box,” here.

By Al Bowers
Associate Director for Research
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

It’s been a couple of weeks since the TEDxNASA@SiliconValley event now. I’ve had a little time to decompress and reflect. I have some thoughts to share…

An incredible amount of work was done by the NASA Ames folks putting on their first TEDx event, and the NASA Langley TEDx crew did an equally incredible amount of work in support of the event, helping out and getting everything spooled up. There were a number of NASA Dryden folks helping out as well; many kudos and thanks to everyone who was doing a lot more than pulling their own share.

Image left: Al Bowers takes the stage for his 8 minutes of fame at the recent TEDxNASA event in San Francisco. Image courtesy Michael Porterfield.

Wow, TEDxNASA. What an event. In the lecture/conference world, the TED name (stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) has huge gravitas. And it is well deserved. Some of the most mind-blowing ideas have been presented in a public forum at TED, and to put all those great ideas together in one place like TED does is simply amazing beyond words. TEDx is the way TED shares their ideas worth spreading with a broader audience. Bravo!

So I knew what TED was before I was asked to be a TEDxNASA speaker. And when the question came up of who should speak for NASA Dryden, the fact that my name got mentioned was a huge compliment and honor. To be honest, I view myself as a pretty regular person. Not very noteworthy, and having little to add to a thought or conversation. But once in a great while, a few times in my life, I’ve had these glimpses of incredible insight. I could see connections between GREAT ideas from the great thinkers that I’ve read about, and thought about their ideas. And suddenly I can see how these amazing ideas work in the vision of my mind.

So TEDxNASA was an opportunity to share one of the really big ideas that I was able to grasp. I chose the last paper by Ludwig Prandtl on the spanload of wings. Prandtl was the founding father of the science of aeronautics. His formulas were the first practical tools by which we could calculate lift, induced drag, and spanload – the distribution of load across a wingspan. John Anderson, the great professor of aeronautics and noted historian, speaks of how Prandtl should have won the Nobel Prize for Physics because of his contributions to aeronautics. And I completely agree. Prandtl’s last paper on spanload and induced drag has languished, almost completely unnoticed, and would be not even a footnote were it not for two brothers who used his idea to build a few wooden gliders and sailplanes. These two brothers, Reimar and Walter Horten, built some of the most beautiful man-made aircraft to ever fly – pure flying wings. The Hortens had to integrate all the components of flight into a single unit, and eliminate everything that did not contribute to their singular idea. Prandtl’s last paper on spanload was the germ of that idea.

Image right: The Horten H VI sailplane, built by Reimar Horten.Image courtesy Doug Bullard.

Many years ago, I had the great honor to listen to Bob Hoey, the retired Edwards Air Force Base engineer. Bob had been studying the flight of birds. And Bob was talking about the spanload of birds and how, if you got it wrong, nothing worked, but if you got it right, everything worked. Bob didn’t know about Prandtl’s last paper, or details of the Hortens’ work. But I did. And suddenly I connected the dots between them, realizing how Prandtl’s idea could solve the three great problems of aircraft in a single integrated solution: maximum performance (that is, minimum drag for maximum efficiency), minimum structure (if you’re limited in structure, what is the wing that is optimum?), and controlled coordinated flight (minimizing the added clutter of control surfaces we take for granted). And I could see the connection between Prandtl with his ideas, the Hortens with their sailplanes, and Hoey with his birds, and everything came together.

Graphic at left: The elliptical spanload (dashed line) and the bell spanload (solid line), with the centerline at the left and the wingtip at the right. At the top are the spanloads, and at the bottom are the induced drag curves (note the bell spanload induced drag goes negative at the wingtip).

TEDxNASA gave me only a few minutes to get my idea across. Normally, it takes me a full 40 minutes to develop the background of how we got to where we are (mostly developed by the Wright brothers and Prandtl), but this was unacceptable for TEDxNASA. Enter the person who could distill the entire talk to what it needed to be, Hayley Foster. Hayley is a Langley person, and her job is speech coach. I’ve never had a speech coach before. Man, was she good, and wow, did I need it! Hayley was not exactly an aero person (she knew some of the jargon and the background), and she could see the germ of the idea I had. And when she edited my first draft, I think there was more red than there was white left on the page! There were seven complete rewrites, and many dozens of edits in there. But it came out. And it fit in the time slot. Hayley is a miracle worker; thank God for her…

TEDxNASA@SiliconValley was in San Francisco, near Moscone Center. It was tagged on the end of the IT Summit, so there was a certain amount of teardown activity for the summit and buildup for TEDxNASA going on. We had our pre-meeting for the speakers, and that was our first walk-through of the venue and familiarization with where the Green Room was, when we needed to be where, the final details on the schedule, and the real indoctrination of what it means to be a TEDx speaker. All the folks doing the prep were running around in these cool black TEDxNASA shirts. All of us speakers were sort of milling around in the middle of this huge hubbub of people running to make things happen. And then, it started.

The first few speakers gave their talks. Things were going pretty well. We had the usual GLITCHes (GLITCH = gremlins living in the computer hardware), but the presentation was moving very well. It was time for me to get ready. Now, I have a confession to make. The worst time for me, for any talk I give, is the last five minutes before I walk out to start talking. I am a total nervous breakdown, train-wreck of stomach-churning, introverted, hands-shaking nerves. I know none of you believe that of me, but it’s true. And then I walk out on stage, and I start, and suddenly…the moment flows. I can connect with people; I can open their mind’s eye to new ideas, to concepts that are really the secret truths of the universe. For a moment, this frail, failing, human mind of mine can do that with others.

“Assumptions are a fact of life…” I begin to share what I have learned. The boxes our minds live inside of…the flight of birds…the Wrights and their success…Prandtl thinking the great thoughts…explaining induced drag…Horten figuring out the implementation…and my stumbling into the implementation (with help!)…my disbelief of the analysis, and Mike Allen’s unwavering belief that it MUST work…how much we could reduce the carbon footprint of aircraft (about 40%). All of this because of the flight of birds. I glanced at the clock twice, right at the last quarter of my talk (1:24 to go), and again just before the summation with 0:24. “When we distill an idea down to its minimum, it is simple and elegant. Prandtl had to rethink his assumptions to find superior solutions. We, too, must rethink our assumptions to solve the problems of today. And I believe this is an idea worth spreading. Thank you.”

Wow. It’s over. Is it really over? Did I get all my ideas in? Was it okay? Faces are coming up to me to shake my hand and congratulate me. Friends are giving me the thumbs-up, slapping me on the back and saying how great I did. Really? Did I do that? Everyone smiles at me. I sit down again and listen to the other speakers. Ilan Kroo (Stanford professor) comes up, says I need to present the derivation to his graduate students. (Wow! Really?) My wife walks me back to our hotel room. I’m in too much of a daze to do anything; it’s a good thing I didn’t have to drive.

The days pass. Life returns to “normal.” The video is posted now. The talk is not perfect (not by a long shot). But it’s good. I’m glad the idea – Prandtl’s idea – is being talked about.

Yesterday afternoon I was working out in the yard, clearing some branches. The sun was hot, and the afternoon breeze was blowing. I watched a raven slope, soaring as he flew by. His tip feathers stretched out against the afternoon’s azure sky…

Friendly Solano Skies – and Crowds

By Mark Pestana
NASA Research Pilot

Against a backdrop of blustery winds from the San Francisco Bay area and beautiful, cloudless skies, an estimated daily crowd of 100,000 gathered at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., to see the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds put on their trademark spectacular air shows at the “Skies Over Solano” Air Power Expo July 30-31.

Fellow NASA research pilot Hernan Posada and I were invited to represent NASA at the event, near Fairfield, Calif. We flew one of Dryden’s Beechcraft B-200 Super King Airs on a route that led us from our home base at Edwards over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada range and into California’s agriculture-rich Sacramento/San Joaquin valleys. Upon arrival Friday afternoon, the ramp was filling with a wide assortment of civilian and military aircraft, classic and current, as we met other pilots and aircrews from around the country.

Our hosts, the 60th Air Mobility Wing, commanded by Col. James Vechery, held an evening BBQ mixer for performers and exhibiters at the wing’s air museum. Along with the terrific welcome – and appropriate safety advisories – Col. Vechery advised us that the proper response to hearing someone mention “Team Travis” was a loud, unanimous cry of “air power!!!” The 60th AMW operates three different types of aircraft: cargo-carrying C-5s and C-17s as well as KC-10 aerial refueling tankers.

Image: Dryden pilots Hernan Posada, left, and Mark Pestana took thecenter’s Beechcraft B-200 to Travis Air Force Base for a meet-and-greetwith thousands of show-goers, many of whom the pair found were avid NASAfans.

The next two days were filled with awesome exhibitions of aerial skills, ranging from gut-wrenching civilian aerobatics to ear-splitting military aircraft fly-bys. Even the U.S. Air Force Academy Parachute Team managed to maneuver to pinpoint landings in the gusty winds.

Personally, our greatest thrills came from the visiting public, who eagerly greeted us with enthusiasm and excitement over the fact that NASA was there. Initial questions from the public centered mainly on the future of human space exploration. We reminded most that humans are living in space as we speak, and will continue to do so as we expect further developments in space exploration in the coming years. We also mentioned the proliferation of robotic planetary exploration that is continuing. Of course, our primary messages were about that first “A” in NASA, and how we’re heavily engaged in using aircraft for two primary NASA missions: research in aeronautics and in Earth science. In particular, our B200 display board showed how these aircraft are used for vital research, from testing a cave-detection sensor destined for a Mars orbiter to wildfire location missions.

The most rewarding part of all of this was that 100% of the public’s response is that they are diehard NASA fans and want to see more and greater accomplishments in the future. Oh yeah – and handing out those NASA stickers and pins is always a crowd pleaser, too!

Seeing Stars

By Jill Pestana
NASA Dryden Student Intern
We were screeching down the runway, engines blasting, accelerating until the shuddering giant leapt off the ground into flight. SOFIA was in the air. The thought of flying on board an airplane that has a hole in its side and carries a 17-ton telescope was a little disconcerting, but after several weeks on the SOFIA project as an intern, learning all about the effort it took to make the aircraft operational, I trusted that we would return to Palmdale safely.
Image right: Cal State-Long Beach student intern Jill Pestana has a big thumbs-up for her experience on a night flight aboard NASA’s airborne observatory, the SOFIA.

Within the first few minutes of the flight, fellow intern Stephanie Sodergren and I were giggling with excitement from our seats in what used to be the modified 747’s first-class cabin. We quickly hung a picture of the predicted flight pattern, planning to highlight the path as we traveled overnight. We got out our NASA “meatball” tattoos and stuck them to our biceps. “It’s only been thirty minutes and we’ve done so much! We still have nine and a half more hours of flight to go!”
It was a clear and calm night over the Pacific Ocean. I gazed through the cockpit windows on the upper deck at the billions of stars visible, and thought solemnly that this may be the closest I will ever be to the stars. I pretended I was in space, gazing down at clouds I imagined to be the continents of Earth. Below, on the lower deck, the scientists and flight crew were looking through the telescope at pinpoints in this vast, unknown universe.
Sitting at the conference table on the passenger deck, I gave myself a fast lesson in the basics of star formation, using a textbook written by Dana Backman, SOFIA education and public outreach director. Relating the information to my college course material and my knowledge of the GREAT – German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies – instrument mounted on the SOFIA telescope, I gained a deeper understanding of how complex technologies are used to “look” through the cocoons of dust to see stars forming. Two astrophysicists sat across from me, receiving the GREAT’s real-time data output. “Here, come look at this!” they would say to me over the audio distribution system’s headsets. They turned their laptop screen around so I could see the fresh data on newborn “cocooned” stars in the giant gas nebula known as the Elephant Trunk formation. When it was announced that we were flying at 45,000 feet, the highest altitude flown on a SOFIA science mission, the scientists and I exchanged excited glances.

Several hours later, we were nearing the end of the journey home. I was the last of the five interns awake, eating cookies with the astrophysicists as they showed me their compiled data. It was a successful science mission, and everyone was in a good mood. A faint glow began coming from the horizon, so I headed back up to the cockpit for the landing. As the light from stars shining across the heavens was overcome by our own star’s light, I felt a twinge of sadness about my SOFIA flight coming to an end. I was exhausted, but part of me wanted to go right back up to the stratosphere. As I was listening in on the headset in the cockpit, I could hear an Australian airline on approach to California. Land was now in sight as mountains began to emerge beneath snowy clouds. I estimated we were flying right over California State University, Long Beach – my college!

With the desert approaching in the distance, I felt such a sense of pride for what had been accomplished overnight. All the effort by engineers, technicians, scientists and managers, German and American, had congealed to produce scientific data from a world incomprehensibly far from our own island of life. I had never felt our species’ innate aspiration to explore and discover more strongly than at that moment. Humbled by the vastness of space, I was beaming with pride and confidence in mankind.
I can only describe my experience of flying on SOFIA as beautiful. From the bright stars to the flight crew’s camaraderie to the notion of such a small speck of humanity – me – gazing out into the limitless unknown, I had learned so much besides the basics of star formation that night. I was ecstatic, thinking about the universe we live in. With so much effort being put into each mission by everyone in the SOFIA program, I had to pause and reflect on the words of J.F. Kennedy as he initiated our quest to the moon: NASA does what it does not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
My 10-week internship experience has been fantastic. I have met so many great, smart people who have helped me learn all about NASA, SOFIA, science, program management, astronomy, and much more. I had the best summer working with my mentor, Stephen Jensen, and fellow interns at NASA. I’m looking forward to applying what I learned and sharing my experiences back at school, hopefully inspiring others to pursue similar experiences. Because of this internship, I was able to secure a job working with SOFIA’s education and public outreach department, and will be working with Stephanie Sodergren on the department’s website during the next school year.
Thank you, NASA, for giving me this opportunity, and for showing the world what humans are capable of achieving.

It Could Happen…It DID Happen!

By Kevin Rohrer

Team Lead
NASA Dryden Public Affairs
They say history is made every day. Most of us read about it on the Web, watch it on the news or recall it years later when reading it in books. Today, I had the privilege of witnessing a truly historic event that will be talked about for many years to come. I saw the space shuttle Atlantis launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

I was there to support the Kennedy public affairs staff as they handled the crush of press interest. I was in good company; representatives from several other NASA centers were also on hand to help facilitate interviews with over 1,000 media representatives reporting on the event. I am told that up to a million people made the pilgrimage to Florida’s Space Coast in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the orbiter ascending from the launch pad and into orbit. Young and old, enthusiasm was high.

Image right: Media from around the world were gathered at the Kennedy Space Center press site for Atlantis’ final launch.

I don’t think anyone can say exactly where everyone came from. I do know that there were at least two people from New Zealand who made the journey. They shared their excitement with me on my plane ride from Los Angeles to Orlando. “Do you have friends or family that you’re here to see?” “No,” they said, “we just wanted to be part of history.” They asked me about the weather situation. I told them that reports from NASA meteorologists called for a 70 percent chance of a “no-go” based on weather conditions. Not the best odds. But, I told them, “It could happen.”

As I sat on the balcony of my hotel Thursday evening, a gentleman and his son said hi from the adjoining balcony. They had traveled from western Florida to watch the launch–their first. As we watched the rain pour down on the cars parked below, they asked me if it would go. “It could happen,” I replied.

When I arrived at the Kennedy press center early Friday morning, weather was still an issue. The clouds were thick, with remnants of an overnight rain still visible along the roads. It was surprising to hear the optimism among the staff and media present. Hey, it could still happen, right? Then as the morning flew by, the clouds began to weaken. At the T-9 minute hold in the launch, the sun began peeking through a few of the clouds. Maybe it could happen!

The countdown clock began ticking once the planned hold was lifted, and the press center was the emptiest it had been all day. I joined the media on the lawn near the infamous countdown clock. As it ticked past the one-minute mark, camera shutters began clicking, broadcast media narrated the unfolding events…and then the clock mysteriously stopped at 31 seconds. People looked around, searching for an explanation. Did they scrub the launch attempt due to bad weather? I started heading back into the media center to see what was going on. Maybe it wasn’t going to happen, I thought quietly to myself.

But just as quickly as the clock had stopped, it started again. The crowd was abuzz; it IS going to happen! Three, two, one…liftoff! I had just witnessed history, the last liftoff of the last mission for the space shuttle.

On my way back to the hotel, it was sad to think that this era of U.S. human space exploration was coming to an end. As I sat in traffic, I saw five kids posing for pictures on a small replica of the space shuttle in front of a City of Port Canaveral building. They were hanging onto the wings and taking turns sitting on top of the space shuttle, no doubt pretending they too were making history as their imaginations took them to space. Maybe they will be the next astronauts going to Mars or to destinations beyond.

Yep, I thought to myself. It could happen.

SOFIA Captures a Speeding Shadow

By Brent Cobleigh

SOFIA Platform Project Manager
On June 23, the SOFIA returned from a mission that the principal investigator, Ted Dunham, called “gutsy.” As a star passed behind Pluto, a faint shadow passed over the Earth at a speed of 51,000 mph. The 100km-wide shadow passed over remote areas of the Pacific Ocean, out of the view of most ground-based observatories. The SOFIA’s unique ability to carry our 17-ton telescope to an altitude three times higher than the world’s best ground-based observatories is one of the reasons this program exists. Here is a quote from Ted:

“Occultations give us the ability to measure pressure, density and temperature profiles of Pluto’s atmosphere without leaving the Earth, which is 3 billion miles away from Pluto. Because we were able to maneuver SOFIA so close to the center of the occultation, we observed an extended, small but distinct brightening near the middle of the occultation. This will allow us to probe Pluto’s atmosphere at altitudes lower than usually possible with stellar occultations.”

The Pluto Occultation Mission was performed with the High-Speed Imaging Photometer for Occultation instrument, which is specifically designed to maximize science collection during an occultation. The photometer is the third science instrument integrated onto the aircraft this year. And we also started flying the water-vapor monitoring system back in March.

The Pluto success comes on top of finishing the first competed flight phase, Basic Science 1 – or BS1 – a few weeks ago. I checked a schedule that we made back in November, to see how close we were to finishing the BS2 flight phase as planned, and we finished one day early! Developing and testing the SOFIA has been a huge challenge, but the hard work is paying off.

And the year is not over. We expect to start the BS2 flight phase in July. After that, we will start testing the liquid nitrogen pre-cooling system that will chill the telescope mirrors prior to takeoff so that we don’t have to waste valuable flight time waiting for temperatures to stabilize. We also have enhancements to test that will improve the telescope pointing accuracy, and a goodwill deployment to Germany in September. The team is developing systems for the segment 3 downtime scheduled to start in November. Completing, installing and testing all the new and upgraded systems will be another challenge that will require the diverse skills of the Platform Project team.

On June 24, I was notified that SOFIA was selected to receive a NASA-wide group achievement award for the Initial Science Flight that we successfully completed last November. Congratulations to the whole team.

My job satisfaction is always based on two things: achieving an ambitious goal, and working with an excellent team. So I am glad to have this job because it allows me to achieve both. Though I’ll be the first to admit that there are ups and downs from day to day, the bottom line is that we are executing what we planned and fulfilling our promises to the science community and to the public. Like many ambitious projects, there are 10 hectic days for every day available to reflect on our success (sometimes it feels like 100 to 1). From time to time, step back and realize the progress we are making.  

Many thanks to SOFIA team members for their hard work and dedication.

A Great Day to Go Flying

By Mike Holtz
NASA Project Lead, Operations/Flight Test Engineer
Weather was on the warm side as we prepared for another mission in NASA F/A-18 #852 testing the Mars Science Laboratory landing radar, but it was still a great day to go flying.  

After intensive and lengthy ground operations on the order of an hour in the aircraft, we taxied out for our flight. We climbed up to 48,000 feet altitude and lined up for the first series of dives. We flew dive angles at 20, 30, 45 and 60 degrees.

Image right: NASA research pilot Nils Larson, left, and Mike Holtz review flight test cards before a test mission in an F/A-18.

The MSL radar within the QTEP – Quick Test Experimental Pod – was set to run several different gimbal angles, some locked and some actively slewing, all with the intent of radiating off the lakebed in some combination with the dive angles from the F-18. All but one test point on the flight cards was achieved before we hit our “bingo,” or minimal fuel remaining, and we had to land. The radar was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the JPL engineers were very happy with the flight. The radar engineers said the data looked fantastic.  

A very good mission, plus I’m pretty sure I lost 5 pounds sweating in the cockpit!

Shaking Hands With A Hero

By Don Johnson
Deputy Project Manager
Ikhana UAS
As part of my job supporting NASA, I recently gave a short presentation to a committee doing an assessment of Dryden Flight Research Center, where I work. I work on the Ikhana – a modified Predator B unmanned aircraft system – and that is what my presentation was about. A couple of the key people with whom I work were on business travel that week, so the duty to make the planeside presentation fell to a couple of other team members and me.

This was a tour of Dryden’s aircraft and capabilities, so the committee received numerous briefings during the afternoon as they toured from hangar to hangar. Now, this committee is part of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Research Council. In other words, a typical government bureaucracy – well, maybe not so typical. The committee is made up of a bunch of high-roller VIPs from places like MIT, Georgia Tech, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing…really BIG brains, about 15 of them, plus several local Dryden managers.

Now flash back to when I was but a lad, not yet 15 years old. I would sit, mesmerized, in front of our little black-and-white TV, watching Walter Cronkite talk about the major milestones and big events of the American space program – yep, NASA. Then, on July 20, 1969, the first human uttered the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I was 14 years old that day, attending the Boy Scout National Jamboree at Lake Pend d’Oreille in Idaho along with about 50,000 other Boy Scouts from around the country. Somehow, the scouting organization managed to create some kind of giant big-screen projection system so that we – all 50,000 of us – could watch that first moon step in real time. Remember, this was 1969 – amazing! That event in history, that first step, will be remembered for as long as there is history and there are people to remember Apollo as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments.

In addition to the big-screen presentation, the guest speaker on the night of this Boy Scout gathering was astronaut Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8. That was the mission in 1968 that first orbited the moon (no landing), the mission on which astronauts read from the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve. He arrived at the outdoor theater right next to where I was sitting on the grass. I think I still have the picture I snapped of him while he was standing there waiting to go onstage.

Well, living through these special events made quite an impression on a young lad, and set the direction of my life for the next 45-plus years. Years later, I became an aerospace engineer, and went to work for the Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base. By the time I graduated in 1977, the Apollo program was over and NASA was drawing down – kind of like the same situation as now due to the space shuttle program coming to an end. There is only one shuttle launch left to go, after which our astronauts will get to and from the space station on Russian spacecraft. After 32 years with the Air Force, I retired and went to work for Tybrin Corp., supporting…NASA. Well, that’s pretty cool!

Back to the present. If you haven’t guessed by now, it turns out that one of the members of this committee of 15 Big Brains hired to assess Dryden capabilities in 2011 was indeed that same first human to step on another heavenly body – the moon – in 1969: Neil Armstrong. He is STILL in the aeronautics business! I had the honor of telling him about our little Ikhana project, and then he and some other committee members asked us a few questions. After the briefing ended, Neil Armstrong immediately stood up and came over to the three of us who had just briefed and shook our hands, thanking us for the presentation, then quietly moved on to the next set of briefings.

There aren’t many people in this world that I consider a hero. He is one of the very few.

Some days, it really pays to get up in the morning!

Image: Ikhana deputy project manager Don Johnson (at right in tan shirt) is among listeners as Ikhana lead operations engineer Greg Buoni briefs members of the National Research Council Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board during a visit to NASA Dryden. Apollo 11 astronaut and first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (in white jacket) is seated at left.