The first event of the 38th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was the Dawn Patrol. The event is comprised of a group of balloon enthusiasts lighting their hot air balloons at the same time to give early morning spectators a light show. (NASA photo / Tom Tschida) The average person is aware that NASA is legendary for its work in space, such as the Apollo 11 mission that featured the first steps on the lunar surface by astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. In 2009, NASA celebrated the 40th anniversary of that event that still inspires people around the world.
However, is not as widely known that before NASA sent men to the moon, the agency's aeronautics division flight-tested rocket-powered aircraft that touched the edge of space. Among the 550 hot air balloons and more than 850,000 people who attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Oct. 3-11, many who visited the NASA exhibit learned more about the sleek black X-15 that 50 years ago redefined the limits of aviation and contributed to the Apollo mission.
"We're excited to have played 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 had a number of people who came again and again because there was so much to see and experience."
Balloon Fiesta attendees had an opportunity to learn not only about the history of NASA aeronautics through a number of displays, but to experience some of it for themselves. For example, an F-15 cockpit simulator allowed people to picture themselves in the pilot's seat lifting off the runways at Edwards.
"A 70-year-old woman sat in the cockpit. It didn't matter if people were young, or young at heart, they enjoyed NASA's interactive exhibits," said Kevin Rohrer, Dryden public affairs chief. "It's amazing to see people in the simulator and imagining themselves as pilots. We hope that inspires them to reach their own personal goals."
When exhibit attendees exited the cockpit, they had an opportunity to learn about the wind tunnels that are used for researching the different aircraft shapes or the aerodynamics of various parts of an aircraft.
Another exhibit detailed the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, a modified NASA 747SP with the world's largest airborne infrared telescope installed in its rear fuselage. The SOFIA will deploy to locations around the world where its high-tech German-built telescope will scan the heavens to obtain clearer views than those taken with Earth- or space-based telescopes. To help people see how infrared astronomy works, a camera is set up for visitors to see how they appear in the infrared spectrum.
"Many people are familiar with the Hubble Space Telescope and the visible light images it has taken. We hope to introduce people to the infrared spectrum by allowing them to see themselves on a monitor through the lens of an infrared camera. We also want them to know SOFIA's technology complements available space telescopes and gives another way of looking at the universe," said Darlene Mendoza, NASA SOFIA education and outreach representative.
Tamera Eakes, 6, has her picture taken at a NASA photo kiosk with an assist from her dad Joseph and NASA exhibits staff member Kimberlee Buter. (NASA photo / Tom Tschida) In addition, visitors to the NASA exhibit also waited for their turn at a photo kiosk, where they could be photographed on either the moon or Mars at no cost.
At an event featuring hot air balloons, NASA appropriately had an F/A-18 half-scale blow-up model at the entrance of the NASA exhibit. Other, less expansive models of the SOFIA NASA 747 aircraft, the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and the next-generation Orion spacecraft were available for attendees to view.
In addition, Dryden aerospace engineering technician Jim Sokolik demonstrated a high-altitude pressure suit that was used in the Mach 3 SR-71 program. He demonstrated the pressure suit daily at the Balloon Fiesta, at Albuquerque area schools and at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics event.
Balloon Fiesta attendees saw spectacular and breathtaking views at the events on the field and in the sky. They also had opportunities for similar experiences while learning about the latest technologies and test beds that NASA is developing to explore space, advance aeronautics and reveal more about planet Earth and its environment.
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