The Armstrong Flight Research Center, NASA's premier installation for atmospheric flight research, is chartered to research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics, space and related technologies, and conduct atmospheric Earth and space science flight operations. The Center is named in honor of Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, who served as director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor organization, and later as deputy administrator of NASA.
Image right: The Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, CA is NASA's premier Center for atmospheric flight research to validate high-risk aerospace technology. NASA Dryden/Carla Thomas
NASA Dryden's history dates back to late 1946, when 13 engineers and technicians from the NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory came to Muroc Army Air Base (now Edwards Air Force Base) in Southern California's high desert to prepare for the first supersonic research flights by the X-1 rocket plane in a joint NACA, Army Air Forces, and Bell Aircraft research program. NASA Dryden is a tenant organization at Edwards Air Force Base and is located adjacent to Rogers Dry Lake, at 44 square miles is the largest dry lakebed in the world. The center flies a variety of specialized research and support aircraft within a 20,700-square mile restricted airspace test range.
In addition to the main campus at Edwards, Dryden bases several Earth science aircraft and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in nearby Palmdale, CA.
The Center is associated with many important technological milestones in aviation and space access – supersonic and hypersonic flight, digital fly-by-wire control systems, supercritical and forward-swept wings, and the Space Shuttles. NASA Dryden was also where the Apollo program's Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, the famed X-15 rocket plane, and the wingless lifting bodies were tested during the 1960s and 70s. Dryden continues to conduct research and provide support for NASA's efforts in aeronautics technologies, human spaceflight, space exploration, and Earth and space science.
A sampling of current and recent projects includes:
- Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle: Dryden played a significant role in the development of this next-generation spacecraft, including planning for and conducting the Orion launch abort system tests, drop tests, landing and recovery tests. Dryden is also developing re-entry and landing profiles, range safety requirements and integration, providing flight test support and performing independent analysis.
- Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA): NASA Dryden installed and integrated mission systems, conducted flight testing and now manages flight operations of the SOFIA, a world-class airborne observatory that complements the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The observatory features a German-built 2.5 meter diameter infrared telescope weighing about 20 metric tons mounted in a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. The SOFIA is a joint program of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The SOFIA is expected to be the world's primary infrared observatory for up to 20 years.
- X-48 Hybrid / Blended Wing Body: Boeing Phantom Works' unique X-48 technology demonstrator is undergoing flight tests at NASA Dryden to validate the potential advantages of the blended wing body aerodynamic concept. The 8.5-percent scale, remotely piloted X-48 is a cross between a conventional aircraft and a flying wing. The initial X-48B version completed 92 test flights between 2008 and 2011, and the modified and upgraded X-48C version began a new series of flight tests in the summer of 2012.
- Environmentally Responsible Aviation: NASA Dryden flies a modified Gulfstream III aircraft for an experiment designed to generate laminar or smooth airflow over a portion of its left wing. A specialized test "glove" attached to the wing with tiny bumps at its leading edge has shown great potential to smooth the airflow and reduce aerodynamic drag.
- Sonic Boom Research: Dryden is supporting a NASA and industry effort to reduce sonic boom noise to enable supersonic flight over land. Currently, supersonic flight over land is prohibited in the United States and many other countries, except in controlled military testing airspace.
- Earth Science: Dryden supports airborne data collection for the scientific community with a DC-8 airborne laboratory; the Ikhana, a remotely operated Predator B adapted for civil use; a Gulfstream III (C-20A) equipped with a sophisticated synthetic aperture radar and a precision GPS-based autopilot system; two autonomously operated Global Hawks, and two high-flying ER-2 civil variants of the U-2S reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft conduct atmospheric sampling, environmental imaging, and satellite sensor validation missions around the globe.
- Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology: NASA Dryden conducted flight tests of the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, or Auto GCAS, for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology Fighter Risk Reduction Program (ACAT/FRRP). Auto GCAS is a lifesaving aircraft technology that automatically prevents controlled flight into terrain, the leading cause of all fighter aircraft mishaps. Auto GCAS is now being integrated into the Air Force's F-16 and F-22 aircraft, and will be installed in the F-35 as well. A simpler version of the Auto-GCAS technology adapted into a smartphone application that is designed for general aviation or unmanned aircraft was flight-validated on a small remotely operated aircraft at Dryden in 2012.
- Intelligent Flight Control System/Integrated Resilient Aircraft Control: These projects validated the application of "self-learning" neural network software to aircraft digital flight control computers, using highly modified NF-15B and F/A-18 aircraft.
- X-43A/Hyper-X: NASA's 12-foot-long unmanned X-43A hypersonic research aircraft became the first scramjet-powered aircraft to fly freely. Scramjet engines hold the potential to increase payload capacity for future hypersonic vehicles by consuming ambient oxygen for combustion rather than having to carry an oxidizer on board, as rocket engines require. In 2004, two X-43As flew at Mach 7, or about 5,000 mph, and nearly Mach 10, close to 7,000 mph, under their own power for a brief period, world records for air-breathing propulsion.
- Active Aeroelastic Wing: This Air Force Research Laboratory-funded project demonstrated roll control provided by active control of wing flexibility on a modified F/A-18 at transonic and supersonic speeds – a modern high-tech outgrowth of the "wing warping" technique used by the Wright brothers to maneuver their first aircraft.
- Space Shuttle support: NASA Dryden supported NASA's human space flight program as a primary and later an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle orbiters for more than 30 years. Dryden was the site of 54 Space Shuttle landings beginning with the first orbital flight in April 1981, with the last being the landing of shuttle orbiter Discovery at the end of mission STS-128 in September 2009. After an Edwards landing, orbiters were serviced at Dryden in preparation for ferry flights back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop one of NASA's two modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Dryden was also the site of the approach-and-landing tests of the prototype shuttle orbiter Enterprise in 1977.
Along with research and support aircraft, Dryden assets include a high-temperature and loads calibration laboratory; aircraft flight instrumentation capability; a flow visualization facility to study airflow patterns; a data analysis facility to process flight research data; and remotely piloted vehicle flight research expertise. Dryden's Research Aircraft Integration Facility simultaneously checks aircraft flight controls, avionics, electronics, and other systems and houses Dryden's flight research aircraft simulators. The only facility of its type in NASA, the facility is designed to accelerate and enhance systems integration and preflight checks on research aircraft.
From a handful of engineers who established the center in the late 1940s, Dryden now employs more than 1,200 government and contractor personnel at its two campuses at Edwards and Palmdale, CA.