At an April 9 dedication ceremony, local, state and federal representatives helped recognize key people. From left to right are Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford; Shane Walter, City of Palmdale building and safety officer; Jerry McKee, Dryden deputy director of management; acting Dryden Center Director David D. McBride; U.S. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California's 25th District; former Dryden Center Director Kevin L. Petersen; DAOF Director Steve Schmidt; Dryden Chief Counsel David Samuels; California state senator George Runner (R-17); and California state assemblyman Steve Knight (R-36). NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. A critical role will be filled in NASA Earth and space science when the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., is fully operational.
Local, regional, state and federal officials along with several hundred guests attended a dedication ceremony April 9 at the cavernous hangar and office complex adjacent to the U.S. Air Force Production Flight Test Complex, known also as Air Force Plant 42. The former aircraft assembly hangar and office structure is a Dryden satellite facility.
"This facility is unlike any other, providing the space we need to manage and operate a suite of unique aircraft," said Dryden's acting director, David D. McBride. "This facility is about more than aircraft. It will support a constant flow of people coming to the Antelope Valley - science campaigns by Earth scientists and astrophysicists to gather the facts and increase our understanding of our planet and our universe."
The DC-8 flying science laboratory and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) NASA 747SP are based at the facility. Other aircraft will be relocated from the main Dryden campus when the DAOF is ready for them, including two ER-2 high-altitude aircraft and a Gulfstream III. The consolidation of these aircraft at one facility creates cost savings by the sharing of maintenance and fleet operations.
Missions launched from the facility will address a variety of science disciplines, including astronomy, climate change, tropical storm development, intercontinental pollution, earthquake and volcanic activity, vegetation and eco-system studies, and glacier dynamics and sea ice research in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Steve Volz, associate director for Flight Programs for NASA's Earth Science division in Washington, D.C., explained that the specialized science aircraft are critical in supplementing or validating information obtained from environmental satellites in orbit around the planet.
A dedication for the DAOF held April 9 also included an open house for Dryden employees, who were invited to visit and see the progress made on the facility. Jacques Vachon shows visitors the ER-2 cockpit. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. "We have over 15 satellites in orbit right now and seven more in development," said Volz. "These are billion-dollar missions, multi-billion-dollar missions, or investments. The only way we can accomplish the groundbreaking Earth science from orbit is by a healthy and vigorous airborne sciences program."
Volz noted that airborne science performs a variety of roles for NASA's science missions, including calibration of instruments while flying under satellite orbital tracks.
"If we take a picture from space, it doesn't mean anything if we don't know it's absolutely accurate. By under-flying with the DC-8, the ER-2, and the G-III, these carry calibration instruments that enable us to know what we are measuring from space - whether it's global ice change, atmospheric chemistry change - are correct because we cannot go up in space and recalibrate our instruments," he said.
Airborne science aircraft also fill other vital roles.
"They also provide a way to develop new instrumentation," Volz said. "If it takes a billion dollars to launch a satellite, you want to make very certain that your instrument works properly. It can take up to 15 years to develop the technology to do that.
"These airplanes provide that necessary test bed to try out as many as 15 to 20 instruments at a time through different environments to see how the measurements work.
A DC-8 staff member inside the aircraft dubbed the "flying laboratory" explains how the aircraft is used for science missions. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. "What this program has shown is, the aircraft are integral to developing satellites. A few hundred thousand dollars on an airplane can save tens of millions of dollars on a satellite development activity. It [airborne science] really is a bridge to orbit for satellites."
City of Palmdale Mayor James C. Ledford Jr. said establishment of the facility is the result of a collaborative partnership between NASA and several local and regional agencies, along with research institutions around the globe. He cited as an example the international partnership represented in the SOFIA program that is based at the facility.
"We're going to have scientists from all over the world," he added. "We need to be prepared to be hosts. We need to be prepared to learn what others might be bringing besides their technologies. They will be bringing their cultures. I find that to be very, very exciting."
U.S. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California's 25th congressional district, who said he couldn't think of a more fitting home for a NASA research facility and laboratory than Palmdale.
"The Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility...will provide not only a great addition to Dryden's mission capabilities, but also an incredible tool for collaborations among industry, universities, government and international partners," McKeon said.
Speakers at the dedication also included California state senator George Runner (R-17), California state assemblyman Steve Knight (R-36) and Norm Hickling, Antelope Valley field deputy for Los Angeles County fifth district supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.