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NASA Langley Writes History with MSL, MEDLI and IRVE-3
By: Denise Lineberry

On Wednesday, NASA Langley's Center Director Lesa Roe beamed with pride as Luat Nguyen, Langley's director of flight projects, introduced his perspective during the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI) and Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) Celebration.

"In 42 years, I've seen a lot of great accomplishments, but the ones we are celebrating today top it all," said Nguyen. "The accomplishments surrounding IRVE-3, MEDLI and MSL over just a 14-day period is nothing less than astounding."

On August 22, 2012, members of the MSL, MEDLI and IRVE-3 teams were recognized for their significant contributions to NASA Langley, and to the Agency. Credit: NASA/George Homich

The MSL is the largest and most complex mission flown to Mars. NASA Langley played a key role in the entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the MSL rover, Curiosity. The MSL EDL team provided crucial engineering assessments of the atmospheric flight of the entry vehicle and analysis of every event within the EDL phase to ensure a safe landing.

"History was made on August 5, and that history was written by you guys," said Dave Way of Langley's Atmospheric Flight & Entry Systems Branch. "Because of your efforts, a truly priceless national asset is now sitting safely on the floor of a crater, at the foot of a mountain, on another planet, already zapping rocks with its laser, and ready to explore 3 billion years of history written in the layers of those rocks."

The MEDLI team developed, installed and tested a suite of sensors and thermocouples embedded in the heat shield to obtain unprecedented aerothermal and aerodynamic characteristics of the entry vehicle as it flew through the Martian atmosphere.

"Somewhere along the way MEDLI became an integral part of MSL, and we were no longer just an add-on project," said Alan Little. "Before we knew it, Curiosity had landed on the surface, and MEDLI successfully completed its data, and we were a successful mission.

"It has been an incredible and emotional journey. It is my unqualified pleasure and honor to work with such a dedicated and talented team."

The NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) MSL team provided mission critical engineering support and analysis of the mission design and development. The NESC is home to 15 NASA technical fellows, and five of those work at Langley.

The IRVE-3 successfully completed a flight test to further demonstrate the feasibility of inflatable heat shields, or Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIAD). The payload was launched on a sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and entered Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 10. This technology could change the way we explore other worlds by accommodating larger payloads.

"We talked about 'Seven Minutes of Terror' [during EDL] … we're talking about '20 minutes of joy' for us," said Mary Beth Wusk, IRVE-3 project manager.

From launch to splashdown into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, the flight lasted about 20 minutes. Engineers in the Wallops control room watched as four onboard cameras confirmed the inflatable shield held its shape despite the force and high heat of reentry. Onboard instruments provided temperature and pressure data. Researchers will use that information to help develop future inflatable heat shield designs.

"I think of all of these accomplishments are a testament to the excellence of Langley, the excellence that came so many years ago, the excellence that is still here, and the excellence that will be here long after I'm gone," Nguyen said.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman