The safe landing of the space shuttle Discovery at the conclusion of the successful STS-114 Return-to-Flight mission and the presentation of astronaut wings to three civilian research pilots who flew the X-15 rocket plane into space in the 1960s highlighted a year of challenge and accomplishment at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.
In between, researchers at the NASA field center at Edwards Air Force Base completed a number of flight research projects and supported a variety of environmental science efforts, gathering and analyzing data that would contribute to the technological advance of aviation, the Agency's space exploration goals, and the knowledge and protection of our environment.
The world watched as commander Eileen Collins and pilot Jim Kelly guided Discovery to landing on runway 22 at Edwards in the pre-dawn darkness of Aug. 9, concluding a complex 14-day Return-to-Flight mission to the International Space Station. The first shuttle mission since the shuttle Columbia tragedy on Feb. 1, 2003, STS-114 also served as a test flight of new techniques to repair potential damage to the Shuttle's thermal protection system while in space. The unscheduled landing drew almost 200 local, national and international media to Dryden on short notice to cover the 50th shuttle landing at Edwards.
Eight test pilots flew the X-15 rocket plane out of the atmosphere and into the record books in the 1960s, earning astronaut status. Although the five military pilots in that elite group received astronaut wings for their feat, the three NASA research pilots received no such recognition - until this year. On Aug. 23, that situation was rectified when retired X-15 pilot William F. Dana, and family members representing deceased pilots John B. McKay and Joseph A. Walker, received civilian astronaut wings acknowledging their flights above 264,000 feet altitude - 50 miles high during a quiet ceremony at NASA Dryden.
Several long- and short-term flight research projects were completed during 2005 at NASA Dryden, chief among them the Active Aeroelastic Wing project. Primarily funded by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and jointly managed by Dryden, AFRL and Boeing's Phantom Works, the eight-year, $41 million AAW project evaluated active control of lighter-weight flexible wings for improved maneuverability of high-performance military aircraft.
AAW concluded its second phase of flights in early March, evaluating the ability of software in its flight control computer to drive its modified control system so that aerodynamically induced twisting of the wings would provide roll control at transonic and supersonic speeds. In all, about 80 flights were flown in the project's two phases.
In September, 13 aerospace engineering students from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo joined researchers from Dryden, NASA Ames Research Center, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman Corp. for on-site research in the C-17 Noise Mitigation Flight Test. Sponsored by the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's Vehicle Systems Program (VSP), the experiment involved recording noise levels from an Air Force C-17 transport as it flew various landing approaches, using 17 sensitive microphones spread out over a 15-square-mile area on the bed of Rogers Dry Lake. In addition to conventional straight-in landing profiles, a new type of simultaneous and non-interfering (SNI) descending spiral landing profile was flown. Using laptops connected to GPS receivers, researchers collected data to validate a modeling tool and tested the hypothesis that this modified landing approach could help keep aircraft noise within the airport land use zone.
A series of research flights in the Autonomous Soaring Project last summer used a modified model motorized sailplane to evaluate use of thermal lift to significantly extend the range and endurance of small unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) without a corresponding increase in fuel requirements. The project flew the 15-pound motor-glider 17 times over an eight-week period. The software algorithms programmed into its lightweight autopilot used aircraft motion - airspeed and altitude changes - to determine the position and strength of an updraft. As the aircraft rose, the engine automatically shut off and the aircraft circled to stay within the convective lift resulting from the thermal or updraft.
Earlier in the year, Dryden's F-15B testbed aircraft supported space shuttle Return-to-Flight efforts by flying a series of Lifting Insulating Foam Test missions. The project acquired data on how insulating foam debris or "divots" behave when these small pieces are shed from the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch, including determining divot structural survivability and stability in flight and quantifying divot trajectories using high-speed videography.
In late December, the second and final phase of flight research in the Intelligent Flight Control System (IFCS) project began on Dryden's highly modified NF-15B research aircraft. The project is evaluating artificial neural-network intelligence software to enable flight control computers to automatically compensate for damage to or failures of flight control systems, allowing the pilot of a disabled aircraft to bring it back safely while maintaining good handling qualities. IFCS flights are expected to be completed in January.
On the environmental science side, NASA's high-altitude ER-2 earth resources aircraft captured data during overflights of Hurricane Emily as it roared through the Caribbean Sea and Hurricane Dennis over the Gulf of Mexico. The flights supported the NOAA-NASA Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes mission, which collected temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind information related to tropical cyclones and other phenomena that often lead to development of more powerful storms at sea.
NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory participated in the Polar Aura Validation Experiment (PAVE) last winter, focusing on the high latitude (Arctic) region of the Northern Hemisphere where winter chemistry has led to significant seasonal reduction of the stratospheric ozone layer. The information obtained from the PAVE experiment will aid in understanding how changing atmospheric composition associated with climate change might affect the recovery of the Earth's ozone layer that is anticipated to occur over the next several decades.
After being operated by NASA Dryden for the past eight years, the DC-8 flying lab was transferred to the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, in September, where it is planned to become the centerpiece of the university's new National Suborbital Education and Research Center. Although the university will maintain and manage the unique science research aircraft over the next five years, it will still be flown by NASA Dryden flight crews for the foreseeable future.
NASA Dryden assisted NOAA and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in mission management of a series of environmental science demonstration flights with the Altair unmanned aircraft in April and November. Sensors on the aircraft gathered ocean color and atmospheric chemistry measurements, observed marine mammals and their environment, conducted low-tide coastal mapping and NOAA law enforcement surveillance of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Southern California.
Honors and Awards
Dryden and several of its staff received honors from a variety of sources during the year, chief among them the Laurel Award presented by Aviation Week and Space Technology to the NASA X-43A / Hyper-X project team for the completion of the first two free flights of an operating scramjet engine integrated with a representative hypersonic airframe in 2004. The Hyper-X team also was honored with NASA's Turning Goals into Reality Administrator's Award for exceptional progress toward making scramjet-powered hypersonic flight a reality.
The center was also recognized by the California Space Authority with a Spotbeam Award earlier this month for supporting the landing of the space shuttle Discovery at the end of mission STS-114, and for its contributions to the nation's space programs dating back into the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era.
Dryden engineer Laurie Grindle was honored by the National Society of Black Engineers with its 2005 Golden Torch Award for Outstanding Woman in Technology of the Year, while project manager Robert Navarro received the Medalla do Oro from the National Society of Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists for outstanding technical contributions and educational outreach to the Hispanic community over the course of his NASA career. Dryden's chief research pilot, Gordon Fullerton, was one of three former astronauts inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center in 2005 for his contributions to the Apollo and space shuttle programs.
The center was saddened by the loss of several long-term members of the Dryden family during the year, among them retired engineers Dale Reed and Roy Bryant who passed away early in the year, and Dryden chief engineer Marta Bohn-Meyer, who was killed in the crash of her personal aerobatic airplane in September.
The Future at Dryden
NASA Dryden underwent a number of changes resulting from restructuring and refocusing of the aerospace agency's goals, programs and projects during 2005. As the center enters 2006, it is looking toward a greater role in support of the agency's space exploration goals while its traditional work in aeronautics research, though still a dominant part of its workload, is scaled back.
Dryden is slated to perform launch-abort systems testing for the planned Crew Exploration Vehicle, the craft that will replace the space shuttles for transporting astronauts into space. That role includes developing the preliminary definition and planning for those tests, drop tests, landing and recovery tests, flight re-entry and landing profiles, and range-safety requirements and integration.
Dryden will be continuing aeronautics research into reduction of sonic boom effects, autonomous aerial refueling and synthetic aperture radar capability for unmanned aircraft. It will also be conducting flight evaluations of an 8.5-percent scale model of a Blended Wing-Body design under contract to Boeing's Phantom Works next spring.
A number of earth science flight demonstrations are planned, including one using the Altair remotely operated unmanned aircraft to monitor a wildfire and relay data back to fire management personnel in real time. To support these and other efforts, NASA Dryden will be acquiring a Predator B unmanned aircraft system next summer, and will modify it to support its civil research role.
Although Dryden's workforce has declined over the past few years, the re-direction of work previously planned for outsourcing to private industry to NASA centers that have suffered losses in their aeronautics research activity is expected to stabilize the center's staff at its current level of just under 500 civil servants, with about the same number of contractor employees on site.
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