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NASA - Aeronautics Sabbatical
December 10, 2007

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Like so many people for whom English is a second language, Ralf Rudnik has favorite words. Two are adventure and colleague.

The Rudnik family adventure, he says, is aided and abetted by NASA Langley Research Center colleagues.

The adventure is eight months and thousands of miles away from their Braunschweig, Germany, home for Rudnik, wife Beate, son Max, 10, and daughter Johanna, 8. Ralf is head of transport aircraft for the Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

At Langley, he's having the time of his life not being the head of anything while working at the National Transonic Facility (NTF). Rudnik is calling it a "sabbatical."

"I've been a manager for five years now and it just slips away," he says of the ability to do research. "If I do my work at home, every five minutes I have a phone call and I have a couple of E-mails and the day is running over me.

"Here, you work and you have time. Nobody is calling you on the phone. You can work in peace, and that's really good."

The work involves testing a commercial aircraft model in the NTF wind tunnel and gathering data that will serve the international computational fluid dynamics community for code validation. It follows Rudnick's field, which is aircraft aerodynamics, with a focus on validation and turbulence modeling.

Work is easier with the family along. While some might see an eight-month stay unworthy of international upheaval of home and hearth, Rudnik doesn't agree.

"I think if my wife and kids had said we do not want to go there, I wouldn't have done it," he says. "I wouldn't have gone eight months without my family."

Though he has visited the U.S. often for aerospace conferences, bringing the family along for an extended stay adds some perspective. Beate joined her husband for a motorcycle ride from Los Angeles to Miami 12 years ago, but the children had never been to the U.S. If they have struggled with English, well it's part of why they're here: to assimilate another culture.

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"You recognize that you are throwing them into a different world, where everybody is talking a different language," Rudnik says. "Max had English in school (in Germany) for about one year, but it's a completely different thing when you have a textbook. You read a little bit and recognize some words while everybody is talking that funny language and you have to catch up.

"Johanna hasn't had hardly any of the language. So the first days, we knew she was just sitting there in school and didn't understand anything."

Ask Johanna now what she likes best about living in Virginia and she responds, "Girl Scouts," with a bashful look, a big smile and bright, excited blue eyes.

The process of getting the family into a home in Williamsburg was not that easy. It began with Internet discourse shortly after a memorandum of agreement was negotiated for the joint NASA-DLR program.

"You couldn't get a home set up from Europe," Rudnik says. "I took a two-week vacation here to get it done."

That wasn't long enough, even with all of they help they got.

"We were supported by our NASA colleagues," Rudnik says. "You say, 'I have a home, I have a lawn, I want a lawnmower.' But you don't want to buy a lawnmower for seven months.

"Then one of my colleagues here said, 'I have a second one. You can use it for seven months.' "

"We got a TV from another colleague. They were really taking care of us."

If it was only as easy to get the power to run the television or the water for the lawn without things an American takes for granted.

Name? No problem. Address? No problem. Social Security number. Problem.

Big problem, provoking a long silence at the other end of the telephone.

Deposit. OK. Phone number? A German cell phone, complete with international prefix.

"And then there's more silence," Rudnik says. "And you figure out in that moment that you're in a strange situation."

That situation isn't helped when you try to open a bank account to pay your bills, still without a U.S. Social Security number. And with direct deposit from a German employer.

Rudnik laughs at the irony. "How do I get money over here and mailed to the landlord, because if I don't, I guess we'd find ourselves pretty soon without a home or utilities."

Still, the job is working well for Rudnik, and Magruder Elementary School in York County has welcomed Max and Johanna. Max is even a student government representative.

Beate has found parks in Williamsburg in which to run and a van to drive her children to basketball practice. Despite all of the obstacles, they have a home with water, power and a telephone.

"The only thing that's a little difficult is you can't get dark bread," Rudnik says, laughing. "That appears common. Everyone who has been to the U.S. for a couple of weeks says you'll enjoy it, but you can't get the right bread."

But thirst is no issue. "I was just kind of lucky," Rudnik says. "I went to our store, the Farm Fresh, and they have one kind of German beer. And it's my brand."

For a good German engineer, it's like home away from home.

Jim Hodges
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center

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Ralf Rudnik and his family.
Ralf Rudnik says he wouldn't have taken the eight-month sabbatical in the United States if his family hadn't come along. Rudnik, wife Beate, 10-year-old son Max and 8-year-old daughter Johanna consider their time in the U.S. to be an adventure.
Image Credit: 
NASA / Sean Smith
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Rudnik is second from left, along with NASA Langley Research Center colleagues, left to right, Melissa S. Rivers, Scott L. Goodliff and Gregory M. Gatlin after testing a commercial airliner at the National Transonic Facility.
One of Ralf Rudnik's favorite words is colleagues. Rudnik is second from left, along with NASA Langley Research Center colleagues, left to right, Melissa S. Rivers, Scott L. Goodliff and Gregory M. Gatlin after testing a commercial airliner at the National Transonic Facility.
Image Credit: 
NASA / Sandra M. Gibbs
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