As it marked its 60th anniversary in 2006, NASA Dryden completed a number of flight research projects and supported a variety of environmental science efforts, gathering and analyzing data that would contribute to aerospace technology, the agency's space exploration goals and the knowledge and protection of our environment.
As Dryden enters its seventh decade as NASA's lead center for atmospheric flight research and operations, the center is actively engaged in all four of NASA's mission concentrations – space exploration systems, human spaceflight, environmental and space science and aeronautics research. Several major projects, a renewed emphasis on fundamental aeronautics research and several new science demonstration aircraft are expected to highlight activity at the center in coming months.
Dryden, working in support of NASA's Orion Project under the Constellation program, will be responsible for performing the flight tests of the Orion's Launch Escape System. Dryden's role includes development of flight re-entry and landing profiles, drop tests, landing and recovery tests, and range-safety requirements and integration.
Dryden established the Launch Abort Flight Test Team for Orion in 2006. Dryden's team, in conjunction with other NASA Centers and other government agencies, will be responsible for integrating the Lockheed Martin/Orbital Launch Escape System with a NASA-built Crew Exploration Vehicle flight test article, and performing the launch abort tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico beginning in late 2008. The team started detailed planning efforts and began the process to procure rocket boosters from the Air Force in preparation for Orion ascent abort testing. These booster rockets will fly the anticipated Ares Launch Vehicle trajectory to deliver the Orion command module test article and launch abort system to the right test conditions, including automatic vehicle reorientation and a parachute landing.
Although there were no space shuttle landings at Edwards in 2006, NASA Dryden maintained its readiness to support potential landings of all three shuttle missions that were flown during the year, including recovery, servicing and ferry flight operations to return the shuttle to the Kennedy Space Center launch site.
On April 10, NASA Dryden recalled the 25th anniversary of the first space shuttle landing at Edwards in 1981 by hosting a media roundtable with NASA retirees and various others who supported that milestone event. Inside NASA's shuttle carrier aircraft, media interviewed those who worked the different areas of operations that made the landing appear seamless. Since orbital missions began in 1981, Dryden has been the site of 50 shuttle landings.
In early 2006, NASA Dryden flew 18 flights with the second generation of Intelligent Flight Control (IFCS) software on Dryden's highly modified NF-15B research aircraft. The Generation II flight tests allowed the adaptive, self-learning neural network system to take more direct control of the aircraft, working alongside the flight controller to adjust for any shortcomings. The IFCS project holds promise to develop adaptive and fault-tolerant flight control systems leading to unprecedented levels of safety and survivability for both civil and military aircraft.
Dryden used the same aircraft late in the year to validate improvements to a space-based navigation system in support of NASA's Constellation program to return humans to the moon and eventually on to Mars or other destinations in the solar system.
Gulfstream Aerospace and NASA Dryden teamed in a project called Quiet Spike™ to investigate the suppression of sonic booms. The project uses a retractable, 24-foot-long, three-segment spike mounted on the nose of NASA Dryden's F-15B research testbed aircraft. The spike, made primarily of composite materials, creates three small shock waves that are intended to travel all the way to the ground without combining into a single strong shockwave, producing less noise than typical supersonic shockwaves.
Since flights began last August, the system's structural integrity has been put to the test and the shock strength from the spike has been measured at speeds up to Mach 1.4. These tests have shown that the spike's articulating design has promise of reducing the intensity of sonic booms.
Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Autonomous Aerial Refueling Demonstration validated flight control software that will enable an unmanned aircraft to autonomously rendezvous and refuel from an airborne tanker.
In 2007, Dryden will continue to push the frontier of aeronautics research in subsonic fixed-wing, supersonics, hypersonics, integrated vehicle health management, and integrated resilient aircraft control.
Boeing Phantom Works, partnering with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, is studying the structural, aerodynamic and operational advantages of the Blended Wing Body concept, a cross between a conventional plane and a flying wing design. The Air Force is interested in the design's potential as a multi-role, long-range, high-capacity military transport aircraft.
Low-speed taxi tests have already begun, and at least five test flights of the sub-scale X-48B are scheduled in early 2007. Flight tests will focus on the low-speed, low-altitude flight characteristics of the blended wing-body configuration, including engine-out control, stall characteristics and handling qualities. Based on the results of the initial flight series, a follow-on series of flights tests may also be considered.
Other aeronautics research efforts in 2007 are expected to include:
- Vehicle Health Management – development and validation of new techniques for strain measurements using fiber optics that can lead to advanced control and vehicle health management technologies.
- Hypersonic Test Capability – continued development of a hypersonic test capability using demilitarized air-launched Phoenix missiles obtained from the U.S. Navy.
- Intelligent Systems – continued development and testing of techniques for adaptive control of aircraft with airframe damage or flight control system degradations.
Earth and Space Science
In August, NASA chose Dryden to play a key role in developing the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Dryden was tasked with completing systems installation and integration and conducting flight tests of the flying observatory.
SOFIA is an airborne astronomical observatory consisting of a 2.5-meter telescope provided through a partnership with the German Aerospace Center permanently installed in a highly modified Boeing 747 aircraft. The airborne observatory will provide routine access to space observations in several parts of the spectrum beyond what is visible to the eye.
After initial check flights from Waco, Texas where modifications were carried out over the past several years, the SOFIA aircraft is due to be ferried to Dryden in early 2007. It will be the focus of an extensive systems integration and two-phase flight test program before beginning operational astronomy missions in about 2010.
NASA provided support to the U.S. Forest Service during late October's Esperanza wildfire near Banning, Calif. Using General Atomics Aeronautical System's Altair UAS, a wildfire sensor designed at NASA's Ames Research Center collected and sent 100 images and more than 20 data files containing the location of the fire perimeter over a 16-hour period. The Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center used the data to map fire behavior and direct resources to critical areas on the fire. NASA Dryden's flight management team coordinated use of the aircraft and worked with the FAA to gain approval for the flight.
NASA's high-altitude ER-2 earth resources aircraft continued supporting the science community in a series of missions during 2006. Following a major overhaul, ER-2 No. 806 flew sensitive instruments to calibrate and validate data from sensors installed on the recently launched CALIPSO and CloudSat weather, climate and air quality monitoring satellites.
Dryden flight crews flew several major missions on NASA's DC-8 airborne laboratory during the year, including a tropical storm formation study off the west coast of Africa. It is anticipated that Dryden flight crews will continue to operate the aircraft on its major earth science and satellite validation missions for the foreseeable future.
NASA Dryden continued its support of efforts to improve science and mathematics education during 2006. Students from Cole Middle School, Lancaster, and Edwards Middle School, located on Edwards Air Force Base, had the opportunity to ask questions of the Expedition 12 crew during a March 2 International Space Station downlink. Former astronaut John Herrington made a mid-August visit to Dryden's two new Explorer Schools in Arizona - Cottonwood Day School in Chinle and Sanders Middle School in Sanders.
In cooperation with the AERO Institute and the City of Palmdale, NASA Dryden opened the Aerospace Exploration Gallery in April 2006. The gallery, in the Palmdale Institute of Technology located in the Palmdale Civic Center, serves as an off-site public visitor center for Dryden, and an educational asset for Dryden's Office of Academic Investments.
The gallery features unique glimpses of NASA's past, present, and future in the Antelope Valley and in space. Displays include the refurbished forward fuselage including the cockpit of an AV-8 Harrier jet aircraft, a representation of flight research activities in the Antelope Valley circa 1949, and visiting displays that depict aspects of aerospace exploration.
To leverage its expertise in operation of unmanned aircraft, NASA Dryden is acquiring a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator B unmanned aircraft system scheduled to be delivered in the spring of 2007. To be named Ikhana, the aircraft will be modified to support its role as a testbed for unmanned vehicle technology development as well as a long-endurance platform for airborne science missions.
Dryden is also looking to acquire two early-model Northrop Global Hawk developmental unmanned aircraft no longer needed by the Air Force, with potential transfer expected in mid-2007. These Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration aircraft would be flown on long-endurance, high-altitude technology demonstrations and on science missions, supplementing the two manned Lockheed ER-2 aircraft currently flown by Dryden in the latter role.
Dryden is planning to re-activate F/A-18 No. 853 that flew in the Active Aeroelastic Wing project that concluded in early 2005. The heavily instrumented aircraft may be used in varied research efforts, including follow-on work in Intelligent Flight Controls and possible follow-on research sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory on the Active Aeroelastic Wing concept.
Dryden's civil service staff grew by about 50 positions in 2006, a sign of increased activity in the Constellation program and SOFIA. At year end, Dryden's civil servant staff numbered about 540, with about the same number of contractor employees on site. NASA Dryden expects staffing will increase by another five percent in the coming year, and an active effort to recruit qualified aerospace engineers is under way.
For more on aerospace research past and present at NASA Dryden, log onto www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden on the Internet.
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