With its fleet of science aircraft and diverse project portfolio, Dryden is poised to make great strides in national efforts to advance environmental and alternative-energy research.
But the center's 21st-century work in these areas won't constitute the first time Dryden has lent a hand during tough times in global energy. Some 35 years ago, a team led by engineer Ed Saltzman made great strides of its own as NASA sought to help battle an oil shortage plaguing the nation. Using scrap sheet metal, excess-inventory government vehicles and donated yarn, Saltzman's team painstakingly proved critical lift-over-drag aerodynamic data that led to wholesale improvements in vehicle design still in use across America today.
Saltzman, who retired in 2002 after a 51-year career at Dryden, along with members of the research team he led were honored April 2 by the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. At the group's 25th annual national symposium, Dryden was inducted as an Innovating Organization in the 2008 Space Technology Hall of Fame and Saltzman was inducted personally, as an Individual Innovator, both for the project work in Aerodynamic Truck Design.
Saltzman's son John, currently a Dryden engineer working on the Orion project, accepted the individual award on his father's behalf. Dryden SOFIA Program Manager Bob Meyer accepted the center award. Others receiving commendations for their contributions were former center employee Louis Steers and a research colleague on the project, Vincent Muirhead.
The work done by Saltzman and his team involved altering the shape of large vehicles - rounding corners and edges, and adding fixtures known as "fairings" - to improve aerodynamic efficiency, which led to markedly improved gas mileage. Virtually all tractor-trailer big rigs and recreational vehicles on the highway today bear physical evidence of the project Saltzman began work on in 1973.
In a February presentation at the second annual AV-ation History Symposium -- a project of the local chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics - Saltzman reflected on the origins of his project's work in a concise, tightly focused overview that, but for the use of an overhead projector instead of PowerPoint slides, hadn't aged a day.
Saltzman told a rapt audience how his motivation to look into improved aerodynamics had been spawned as he rode his bicycle to work from the small community of North Edwards, along Highway 58. Noting the push-pull effects of air pressure generated when big rigs passed him, he recalled, he began pondering ways those effects could be managed so the trucks could glide more easily through the pressure instead of pushing against it. Research in that area was a natural for Saltzman, whose career at Dryden had been devoted to analyzing lift-over-drag ratios on aircraft from the X-1E to the X-15, XB-70 and F-111 Transonic Aircraft Technology test bed.
"NASA was trying to find ways to address the oil shortage that was in the headlines" in the 1970s, he told symposium listeners. Once his team's work had shown a direct link between fuel costs and aerodynamics, he said, the transportation industry "had a vital interest in this drag-coefficient stuff whether they knew it or not."
Saltzman persuaded NASA officials to consider the potential advantages of devoting resources to ground-based aerodynamic research as part of a national effort to combat the energy crisis. With ground transportation comprising 70 to 75 percent of fuel then being consumed nationally, he pointed out, and after some $70 million dollars had been spent during the previous decade to improve aircraft, which used just 13 percent of the national total, "wouldn't it make sense to improve ground vehicle efficiency?"
He won the point, and his truck-fairing research went forward albeit with a budget for which "shoestring" was probably too generous a descriptor. But Saltzman, an Iowa farm native with plenty of horse sense and make-do ingenuity in his bloodlines, guided his research steadily along with what tools he had available. In retrospect, his project came to typify the sort of research -- unfettered, and bare bones - through which so many of Dryden's historic achievements were made.
There weren't funds for purchase of an accelerometer, so Saltzman made do with a clipboard, a speedometer and some stopwatches. Sheet metal from Dryden's fabrication shop was customized to serve as modifications to the various test vehicles, the first of which was "a worn-out mail truck that was on its way to the Air Force surplus yard." From his wife's knitting business came donated pieces of yarn that his team affixed to the vehicles' sides to help create a visual depiction of airflow, and, lacking an official test track, "we did a lot of things out on Highway 58," he said.
When it was finished, the first full-blown test bed - which became known as "the shoebox" - looked like "a 1970s worst-case motor home," he admitted.
During nearly a decade of work, Saltzman and his team continued producing data and saw gradual improvements in the tools they had to work with. Hinges and casters on a later-generation test bed still came from a local hardware store and were held in place by bungee cords. But the federal Department of Transportation eventually learned of the project and provided a full-size semi-trailer truck as well as funding - only half of which, Saltzman noted with pride, was used for the tests. In its final stages, tests in the project were conducted along a 312-mile route that researchers drove in its entirety five or six times while accumulating data, if not very speedily.
"On Nine-Mile Hill east of Mojave," Saltzman recalled, "we were passed by a tumbleweed."
Overall results proved drag reduction in excess of 50 percent, translating into a fuel savings of as much as 6,829 gallons per year assuming 100,000 annual miles traveled.
Now enjoying a bit of notoriety for his work, Saltzman was characteristically self-effacing and quick to credit teamwork and good leadership for his project's success. He noted the importance of support he received from Milton Thompson, then Research Projects director.
"And I was lucky," he said. "Dryden was headed by men of tremendous insight - Paul Bikle, Walt Williams. That was extremely significant for me."
By Sarah Merlin
X-Press Assistant Editor