Rising Expectations - Aeronautics a Focus at N.M. Balloon Fiesta
When as many as 900,000 people visited the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., Oct. 2-10, one place where they learned something they might not have known about was at the NASA exhibit.
Though many people are aware of the agency's space mission, not as many are familiar with NASA's aeronautics research conducted at four centers across the nation: Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
NASA Aeronautics, which has a history of bringing key technologies to all aspects of aviation, is looking to do so again with its latest "green aviation" initiative. The program seeks to test and integrate technologies for reducing aircraft noise and emissions, maximizing fuel usage and improving air-traffic management.
"We were excited to have a lead role in the aeronautics exhibit in the NASA tent at the Balloon Fiesta," said Mary Ann Harness, Dryden public outreach specialist and exhibit coordinator. "We have a number of people who come again and again because there is so much to see and experience."
Balloon Fiesta attendees learned not only about the history of NASA aeronautics through a number of displays, including a timeline of aviation achievements, but experienced some of it personally. For example, an F-15 cockpit simulator gave visitors the chance to picture themselves in the pilot's seat, lifting off the runways at Edwards.
When exhibit attendees exited the cockpit, they had an opportunity to learn about the wind tunnels that are used for research on different aircraft shapes or the aerodynamics of various parts of an aircraft.
New to the exhibit this year were twice-daily presentations by former Dryden aerospace engineering technician Jim Sokolik, a space shuttle tire flown on the orbiter Discovery, and kiosks that showed aeronautics can be fun and games.
Sokolik demonstrated a high-altitude pressure suit that was used in the Mach 3 SR-71 program during daily hands-on life support demonstrations and longer presentations at Albuquerque-area schools. Sokolik allowed participants to taste astronaut food, which is eaten by pilots of high-altitude aircraft on long missions.
The shuttle tire on display was from Discovery's 12-day STS-116 mission in December 2006. On that mission, astronauts delivered and attached the ISS third port truss, performed major rewiring of the station's power system and delivered new ISS personnel.
Dryden research aircraft contributed to the development of the shuttle's design, including its thermal protection, solid rocket booster recovery, flight control, braking and drag chute systems. In addition, the space shuttle prototype Enterprise was flown at the center in 1977 to evaluate glide and landing characteristics of the 100-ton vehicles.
Visitors to the NASA exhibit waited their turn at a photo kiosk, where they could be photographed on either the moon or Mars at no cost. Another kiosk featured a NASA aeronautics memory game or a virtual airport, where visitors to the display zoomed in to see how NASA's technology has found its way to use on military, commercial and general aviation aircraft and helicopters.
The matching-game kiosk featured X-15 concept models, delta wing models of the 1980s, and an X-2 model that have all flown in NASA wind tunnels. When all of the pairs have been matched, a brief description of each item is available for the game player to review before going on to a more challenging game with even more matches to find.
The virtual airport allows people to click on various parts of the aircraft housed at different areas of the virtual facility. The featured areas of each aircraft are products of NASA research, including supercritical wings, area rule, winglets and digital fly-by-wire systems.
Supercritical wings refer to the wings' shape, which is flatter at the top, more curved on the underside with a downward curve at the trailing edge. The shape minimizes aerodynamic forces on the wing and improves the aircraft's efficiency at speeds just below the speed of sound. Area rule is one of the most revolutionary aircraft technologies, allowing an aircraft to fly faster and greater distances through reduction of aerodynamic drag where the wings attach to the fuselage.
Winglets are vertical endplates that are attached to aircraft wingtips that improve airflow and fuel efficiency. Digital fly-by-wire systems are now standard on most newer aircraft. They replaced heavier and less reliable hydraulic systems with a digital computer and electronic wires that send signals from the pilot to the aircraft's control surfaces.
At an event featuring hot air balloons, NASA appropriately had an F/A-18 half-scale blow-up model at the entrance of the agency's exhibit. A less expansive model of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA NASA 747SP aircraft, was also on display.
The SOFIA, a modified NASA 747SP with the world's largest airborne infrared telescope installed in its rear fuselage, will deploy to locations around the world. Its high-tech German-built telescope will scan the heavens to obtain clearer views than those taken with Earth-based telescopes.
Many people are familiar with the visible light images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The SOFIA display introduced visitors to the infrared spectrum by allowing them to see themselves on a monitor through the lens of an infrared camera.
Balloon Fiesta attendees saw spectacular and breathtaking views at the events on the field and in the sky. However, they also had opportunities for similar experiences while learning about the latest technologies and test beds that NASA is developing to advance aeronautics and reveal more about planet Earth and its environment.