NASA Langley: Where the Wild Things Are
Though the nature of much of their work is classified, it's no secret that the engineers and researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center have helped develop some of the most advanced, cutting-edge technology in the world.
Hypersonic aircraft, space shuttles, Mars rovers — the list goes on and on.
But even as the great minds at NASA Langley push technology to new and exciting realms, Mother Nature offers occasional reminders that she isn't one to be — you'll have to pardon the pun — outfoxed.
For instance, in a small, plain lab in building 1247D, research scientist Greg Jones does some of the earliest testing and probing of advanced aircraft models that will later end up in the center's big wind tunnels.
Building 1247D was built in the 1950s, and its floor, walls and roof are made of 12-inch-thick, reinforced concrete. "Not a place for raccoons," Jones said, "because they can't find their way in."
But Jones's lab was an addition to 1247D. Its walls are made from cinderblocks, not reinforced concrete. And it has an attic.
A couple of years ago, while Jones was doing some work at the National Transonic Facility (NTF), a colleague visited the lab at 1247D and complained that it had an odor. Jones decided to investigate.
"It smelled like an outhouse," he said. "I do Boy Scouting. It smelled worse than one of my outdoor latrines."
A couple of raccoons had taken up residence in the attic; they were captured and removed. The smell lingered, though, because the raccoons had left behind a significant amount of feces and urine. A few months after the raccoons were captured, a team came in and cleared out the feces, which helped — some. But ultimately, the ceiling and electrical wiring and fixtures had to be replaced because the urine had soaked into just about everything.
"This was a very expensive cleanup," Jones said.
It's just in the last few weeks that Jones has been able to start moving his equipment back into the lab, which now bears a slight antiseptic smell from the chemicals used in the cleanup.
That smell and a coonskin cap are the only signs of the raccoon invasion. Jones spotted the cap at a local Cracker Barrel and couldn't resist buying it.
"It's going to stay part of this room," he said, laughing.
No one was laughing on Feb. 10, 2010, when power to the entire center suddenly went out in the middle of the night. The culprit turned out to be a raccoon that had climbed onto the 22,000-volt bus at the center's electrical substation and caused a short. Power to the center was restored. It didn't end so well for the raccoon.
Just four days later, another raccoon met the same fate in almost the exact same place.
"Since it was Valentine's Day, we said it was Romeo and Juliet," said John Inge, an electrical engineer with the Center Operations Directorate.
According to Inge, the substation is undergoing some upgrades that will help to isolate power outages should another daredevil raccoon make its way onto one of the high-voltage buses. But there's only so much you can do in the ongoing war between electricity and Mother Nature.
Squirrels and rabbits have caused outages at the center, too. Inge even remembers a snake causing an outage at the NTF a few years ago. Most of the incidents happen during the winter, he says, when animals are looking for warm places to hide.
But while NASA Langley's raccoons and squirrels cause trouble by looking for places to get inside and warm up, its deer prefer another method — dashing out in front of cars.
Chuck Cramer, a NASA Langley security specialist, estimates that annually, security guards respond to between 7 and 10 collisions between deer and cars on center. Most of the accidents occur in the early morning hours when the deer are still active and visibility is low.
"We haven't figured out a way to put reflectors on them," he joked.
Because the speed limits at NASA Langley are low and the deer here tend to be small in stature, Cramer says people's vehicles usually don't end up taking much damage. Unfortunately, the deer do.
But even with the occasional accident, the deer population on center is still healthy. The last official count was 45. That was a couple of months ago, though. Cramer says a few fawns have been born since then, and estimates that the current population, most of which resides in the woods to the north and south of the Wythe Creek gate, is probably closer to 65.
Deer aren't the only animals Cramer gets calls about. Several foxes roam the center. Though they tend to be invisible during the daytime hours, they often emerge during the evening and wander into populated areas.
"Where there's people there's garbage, and where there's garbage there's food, and where there's food you'll find predators looking for rats, mice, whatever," Cramer said.
The most unusual animal sighting Cramer has dealt with in his 11 years here involved a wildcat. Several employees reported seeing a "bobcat" in a remote area of the center a few years ago. Though Cramer didn't see the animal with his own two eyes, he did a little research and discovered that what they'd probably seen was a type of lynx.
"They're indigenous to Virginia," he said. "I didn't know that until I got a call that there was a bobcat out there and looked up the indigenous species."
Cramer encourages anyone who spots a wild animal on center to play it safe. As long as the animal appears healthy, he says, steer clear and there shouldn't be an issue.
If, on the other hand, someone sees an animal that's foaming at the mouth or exhibiting aggressive or unusual behavior, security needs to know.
"Give 5500 a call," he said. "That's the dispatch center. If a person feels threatened by an animal, that's all they have to do is call us. We'll be happy to render whatever assistance we're able to."
Mary Gainer, a historic preservation officer with the Environment Management Office, echoes Cramer when it comes to playing it safe with the center's wildlife. She also says there are regulations people should be aware of.
The feeding of wild animals is prohibited by state and federal regulations, she said, and can unnaturally increase population numbers, increase the likelihood of disease transmission, diminish the wild nature of the animals and boost the chances of conflicts between the animals and the people who work near them.
"Our office has been contacted regarding people setting out bags of peanuts for the squirrels," she said, "and this is in violation of Virginia regulations."
Gainer says her office also regularly receives calls about birds — particularly ospreys. The facilities at NASA Langley provide lots of choice real estate for ospreys, who like to build their nests on high, flat surfaces. But what's ideal for a bird isn't always ideal for a human, which is why there are regulations for dealing with the nests. If someone discovers an undesirable nest, Gainer says, it's important that they contact her or her colleague Peter Van Dyke so they can coordinate an appropriate response with the help of the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services.
Just last year, a pair of juvenile ospreys nested at the NTF. Because the nest was in an undesirable location and considered inactive — no eggs or flightless young — it had to be removed. This year, Gainer said, the male returned and began building another nest, which once again had to be removed.
In 2010, two immature barn owls nested inside building 1212C. They entered through a hole under the eaves and raised three young. After the young fledged, the hole was sealed — but it wasn't a total eviction.
"At the time the hole was sealed," Gainer said, "an owl nest box was installed since owls generally return to the same location each year."
And that's the kind of thing Gainer and Van Dyke would like to see more of at NASA Langley. With raccoons wreaking havoc on labs and substations, deer dashing in front of cars, and ospreys and owls ruffling feathers from above, it can sometimes seem like Mother Nature is at odds with all the 21st-century technology being developed in her midst.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
"One of the best things we can do is provide the proper wildlife habitat with natural sources of food and shelter," Gainer said. "This is something Peter and I would like to see improvement on at our center. As more of the property is converted back to green space, we would like to see an effort in habitat restoration."
By: Joe Atkinson
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman