Spring Means Unpredictability and Budgets

Photo of Patrick StolikerBy Patrick C. Stoliker

Deputy Director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center

It’s springtime again at Dryden. You cantell by the wild fluctuations in weather: cold and dreary, gale force winds, orsunny and balmy –  sometimes all in oneday! The wild flowers start blooming, sometimes spectacularly; but this yearnot so much. I was at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, west ofLancaster, two weeks ago and the poppies were few and far between. 

Another principal indicator of springtime isthe leap into the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) cyclefor the Agency’s budget. For those not familiar with the process, let meexplain.

We start off with PPBE guidance tricklingout of Washington (stamped Draft, of course). This is followed by StrategicProgram Guidance (SPG) – Draft 2. These documents provide the ground rules foreach of the Centers and the Agency Mission Directorates to input their budgetinformation into various databases. The budget information includes workforce numbers, procurement expensesand travel. It provides a top-level description of the Agency’s activities forthe next five years. Why is this important? Because it helps set the strategicdirection and constraints in which we must complete our research priorities.

This is followed by the Program and ResourceGuidance (PRG) from each Mission Directorate. The PRG is a more detaileddescription of the work the Mission Directorates plan to accomplish. We spendthe rest of early spring revising inputs based on project plans, gettingrevised instructions, and revising timelines.

Image of SOFIA aircraftIn reality this is a critical effort. What arethe staffing and resource requirements for the Center to successfully operatethe SOFIA aircraft for 1,000 hours of science flights? What are theimplementation plans for the Aeronautics Research Directorate and how do weutilize our workforce to accomplish them? What is the schedule and what are theappropriate resources to support launch abort system testing for MPCV? Workingwith all the organizations at the Center, we will develop our best answers tothese questions, and effectively use the resources to execute these missions.

All the while we are using a very blurrycrystal ball to extend this guidance five years into the future. So these arethe things keeping us busy: building spreadsheets, attending Budget ControlBoards, and chasing shifting time lines every spring.

For me, one of the best parts of spring isdriving onto the Center at sunrise after the time change and Hangar 4802 is litup and lined with airplanes. That sight never disappoints me.

Two days ago it started bright and sunny, aweek ago I shoveled a foot of snow off my driveway, and another storm is comingin this weekend. I’m certain it is going to snow, my apple trees all startedblooming this week…it’s springtime at Dryden again.

NASA Aids in Capturing Video of Historic X-51 Flight


Every now and then, due to the unique capabilities of our aircraft and our personnel, NASA gets called upon to assist the Air Force in one of its missions. In this instance we were asked to help by providing video documentation and airborne safety chase for a high-altitude first release of the X-51 hypersonic test vehicle. You can read more about this test flight on the Edwards Air Force Base Web site here: http://www.edwards.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123206547 .


Normally, the Air Force would use its own chase F-16 aircraft. However, launch conditions were too slow for an F-16 at the planned altitude of 50,000 feet. NASA Dryden operates a fleet of four chase and support F/A-18 aircraft, and the high altitude and slow speed is something our aircraft could handle. NASA Dryden also has a unique cadre of truly talented airborne videographers and photographers. Taking videos and pictures requires a skill only learned through years of experience and this is routinely demonstrated in the NASA photo/video team’s superb products.


For this mission we conducted numerous briefings and several dress rehearsals so all participants, both in the air and on the ground, would be ready for their roles. The flight included the U.S. Air Force B-52, with the test vehicle tucked under the port wing and inboard of the engines, and two NASA F/A-18s. One F/A-18 was a single-seat aircraft with a primary mission of safety chase. It was there to allow the pilot to watch the takeoff and climb to altitude, ensuring the vehicle remained intact with no leaks or apparent anomalies in condition. The second F/A-18, a 2-seater I was flying, had the videographer in the aft seat. Our mission was to capture the X-51 as it separated from the B-52 and the rocket booster ignited, accelerating it into the record books. We took off about 15 minutes after the bomber and chase. We climbed to altitude in trail but were flying faster so as to catch them en route. We needed to be in position close to the B-52’s left wing when the flight reached the test area off the California coast. 


After a trial run down the launch path, the flight circled back to point west again. This time the X-51 launch system was readied and clearance was received. The range was “green,” meaning the X-51 could be safely released.


As we got close to the desired launch point the appropriate calls were made:  “30 seconds to release,” then “10 seconds,” followed by a tense delay until the hypersonic aircraft dropped free of the bomber. 


In the video chase F/A-18, I was striving to be in exactly the right position, not too close but never too far away. At this high altitude the aircraft is not nearly as responsive as it would be down lower. Also, we were flying much slower for this launch, making the flight controls even more sluggish. One false flight control or throttle input, and we could easily fall way below or way behind the B-52 and then be unable to catch it in time to capture the video. The camera operator needed a clear view of the release but also needed to have it in sight as it dropped away before the rocket motor ignited. The X-51 was going to drop up to 1,000 feet below the B-52, so we had to be ready to go lower with it. This sequence all went without a single hitch and the X-51 booster rocket motor ignited in a beautiful, sharp plume. The vehicle rapidly accelerated away before climbing smoothly into the planned trajectory. 


It was visually as flawless a launch as I have ever witnessed and truly an awesome sight. After the X-51 disappeared from view, which took about 45 seconds after being dropped from the bomber, we turned toward home. Now we could see the white contrail the X-51 had left in the sky. It was no longer arrow-straight, but wavy and kinked by the high-altitude winds. The flight home would take another 25 minutes, but it was a relaxing 25 minutes borne by the exhilaration of success.


To view the amazing video, follow this link. https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=14470278


The Air Force Research Lab’s X-51 project office said they were absolutely thrilled by NASA’s “superb safety and video chase support.”  It was a privilege to participate with the team to help capture this video and make it available to a global audience. 


Dick Ewers

NASA Research Test Pilot