NASA at the Balloon Fiesta
Many brisk, dark mornings at the Albuquerque, N.M., International Balloon Fiesta transitioned to sunny ones as brightly colored hot air balloons ascended en masse to the skies.
More than 800,000 people attended the events during the week to see 621 hot air balloons. There were 208 launch sites capable of sending off two consecutive waves of hot air balloons. Because of the number of hot air balloons, multiple waves were required to get them all airborne. To give a reference for the size of the Balloon Fiesta acreage, imagine 56 football fields lumped together.
So what did some of the fans do when the action was over, or at least out of sight? They headed to exhibits like NASA's, which was available all nine days of the event that wrapped up Oct. 12, despite a soggy Sunday morning and pockets of inclement weather during the event.
Visitors to the Balloon Fiesta saw a NASA exhibit focused on aeronautics, said Mary Ann Harness, Dryden public outreach specialist and exhibit coordinator.
"We were looking to portray aeronautics to folks so they realized NASA isn't just [about] space," Harness said. "We also stressed NASA's 50th anniversary, as well as featured SOFIA, a timeline of aeronautics, and how different aircraft - military, commercial and general aviation - have benefited from NASA technology efforts."
For Marcos Gonzales, at least, and his daughter Renata, 5, that message came through loud and clear.
While Renata was sitting in a T-38 simulator cockpit, Gonzales said he has been to Edwards Air Force Base and seen the sleek Mach 3 Blackbird. He has passed his love of aviation to his daughter.
Dad and daughter also had an appreciation for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA aircraft. Information about the SOFIA program was available at the exhibit, which fired the Gonzales' imaginations because of one of their hobbies.
"We have a telescope and binoculars at home and we look at the constellations. We also watch news on NASA missions," Mendoza said.
The SOFIA is a specially modified NASA 747 that will carry the world's largest airborne infrared telescope, which was built by Germany, a key U.S. partner in the venture. Darlene Mendoza, who is based at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., showed attendees an infrared camera and the differences between what can be viewed in visible versus infrared light.
The infrared camera used in the SOFIA exhibit was of special interest to Arabella Pepin, who said she is considering a career in engineering.
"It was very interesting seeing myself on the screen, and it helped me see what my science teacher in eighth grade taught me about infrared light," she said. "I thought it was interesting how a regular airplane was transformed into a laboratory that scientists will be able to use to see things in ways they could not see them before."
Assisting Harness in staffing the NASA exhibit was Kimberlee Buter, and representing Dryden's Innovative Partnerships Program office was Dryden's Kim Lewis-Bias. Lewis-Bias provided materials that showcase ways in which NASA technology may be found in everyday life and in all varieties of aircraft.
The Balloon Fiesta exhibit emphasis on NASA's anniversary year coincided with the week on which the agency began business as NASA. On Oct. 1, 1958, the former National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, officially became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It's an anniversary NASA officials want to share.
"The Balloon Fiesta offered NASA a chance to spread the word on its aeronautics projects. The venue also provided another opportunity for NASA to share in the celebration of its 50th anniversary with more than 800,000 people," said Anthony Springer, NASA communication and education lead for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
Another part of the exhibit illustrated how pilots of high-altitude aircraft are protected from cold, thin air. Dryden life-support technician Jim Sokolik was on hand to demonstrate the suits' use to Fiesta crowds.
Sokolik also had on display a retired full-pressure suit assembly like those ER-2 pilots must wear to survive in the harsh environment of high-altitude flight. The ER-2 is the civil variant of the military U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. NASA's ER-2 aircraft are used for environmental sampling and atmospheric observation missions.
Brandon Clark, 8, was particularly interested in how pilots in high-pressure suits get a drink. Sokolik gave the boy a bottle with a long straw and had him poke it through a hole in the helmet.
"I learned that they can drink by sticking the straw through this hole," Clark said, pointing to a hole in the helmet.
Another popular part of the NASA exhibit was a photo booth where visitors could have pictures taken in an automated system that produced photos simulating the subject on the moon or on Mars.
Emily Anderson, a student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said the exhibit was "simply out of this world."
"I visited Mars and I have the photographic evidence. I'm doing a speech on astronautics and this will a good visual aid. It was my dream as a kid to be an astronaut and my dad works in aerospace," Anderson said.
And what is more appropriate than an inflatable half-scale F-18 at a balloon event? F-18 aircraft are used at NASA as research planes and for following research aircraft to provide support for the mission and a platform for photo and video documentation of research flights.
The NASA showcase also featured a T-38 cockpit simulator for visitors to sit in and get a feel for real jet aircraft as well as a continuous video presentation highlighting 60 years of flight research and testing at Dryden.