May 6, 2012

An Unforgettable Trip To Dryden Flight Research Center

Lee Rannals for

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center may not be as sexy as Kennedy Space Center, but its research is crucial to the advancement of the space industry.

Dryden had its NASA Social event on Friday, with 60 social media followers in attendance.  It was essentially an adult space camp for a science geek.

During the event, officials at the center took us behind the scenes to get a look at what kind of research is being done at Dryden.

David McBride, Dryden's Center Director, opened up the day by welcoming the attendees, and talking a bit about the history of the flight research center.

He said "we have a long heritage here, longer than NASA's been around."  Dryden was first established in 1946 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).  These 13 engineers and technicians were involved in sonic boom research.

McBride said at the NASA Social that they realized between 1946 and 1947 that everything they learned between the right brothers, and everything about aeronautics was irrelevant when it came to flight at high speeds.

He said it was bittersweet because they were not going back to Virginia, but had a new career ahead of them.

Sonic boom research is still an ongoing study at Dryden, with researchers working to try and make a sonic boom quieter so aircraft flying at super sonic and hyper sonic speeds can do so over residential areas, without disturbing the citizens.

David even touched on the idea of future moon landing mission research at NASA.  He said that Dryden has proposed a number of ideas to NASA about how to build moon landing simulators.   Future moon landings would need a similar simulation as the Apollo mission, which would be developed at Dryden.

After touring the facility, seeing an Apollo lander, as well as a sonic-boom fly-over presentation, some of the heads of departments of research and engineering presented a show-and-tell about what they are doing at Dryden.

NASA engineers at Dryden are working on Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology (ACAT) to keep pilots from hitting the ground while flying jets like the F-16.

Mike Marston, DROID project manager at Dryden, is working on ACAT through a modified Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone (DROID) UAV model aircraft.

He said misjudging the ground is the number one leading fatality in aviation, so systems like the ACAT are crucial to keep pilots from colliding with the ground.

Once the system feels that a pilot is too close to the ground, it kicks in and automatically maneuvers the aircraft so that it does not collide with the ground.  During the demonstration, Mike showed a video of a pilot who nearly ran into the ground without realizing it, but the ACAT system kicked in and saved him.

Marston said when using ACAT, engineers have designed the algorithm so that pilots can be as aggressive as they want, without the system taking over and getting in the way.

Even the photojournalists at NASA's Dryden gave a presentation about what it takes to take pictures or video of aircraft, while flying in another aircraft.

Lori Losey, senior producing and director supervisor of the Dryden TV department, talked about the difficulties of shooting video while working under 3- to 5-Gs in an jet.

The photojournalists like Losey have to take egress training, as well as wildlife survival training, to ensure their safety incase a worst-case-scenario situation happens.

After the show-and-tell presentations, the attendees got to head to another airplane hanger and sit inside an F-18 cockpit.  NASA also had a Boeing X-48c on display for everyone to see, which has only had limited view to the press or public so far.

Once everyone had their picture taken aboard the F-18, everyone jumped in the "people mover," which is the vehicle that would take astronauts from the space shuttle after a mission to a facility to be looked over by medical professionals.

After a long day of adventures at Dryden, and getting a better understanding of the type of research that has taken place at the historic facility, people were not ready to leave.

Being at Dryden in the Mojave Desert on Edwards Air Force Base had a surreal feeling.  The kind of feeling that you only get once-in-a-lifetime, and know it is something you cannot forget.  People from all different perspectives, careers, and backgrounds shared not only a common interest in man's ever reaching aspirations for space, but also an experience that cannot be duplicated inside the hearts of all those who love NASA.


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