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VITAL: Out With the Old, in With the New
By: Jim Hodges

Declaring that upon its completion, "NASA's oldest center will be its newest," Vibrant Transformation to Advance Langley (VITAL) has outlined its plan for the next 20 years of the facility.

Vital meeting at NASA Langley.
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VITAL team members (from left) Charlie Harris, Cathy Mangum and George Finelli present the Langley Revitalization Plan and answer questions at a Reid Conference Center gathering. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

That plan includes 604,000 square feet of new building space, as well as demolition of 24 buildings totaling 1.21 million square feet. It's forecast to save $105 million in maintenance and utility costs and eliminates $141 million in deferred maintenance over the life of the plan.

About 75 percent of that new space is dedicated to research and development facilities.

"Langley's oldest building is close to 80 years old, and the average age of our buildings is 44 years old," Cathy Mangum, who has chaired VITAL through its one year of existence, told a group Monday at the Reid Conference Center.

"That is a difficult infrastructure to sustain. There are a lot of facilities that are in need of repair and maintenance."

The Revitalization Plan encapsulates work going back seven years, to the beginning of a program called "New Town" that has produced a new high-density, LEED Platinum office building and will break ground for an Integrated Engineering Services Center in May. The plan drew information from several white papers, including the "21st Century Laboratory," various studies quantifying laboratory needs for the future, the Center Master Plan, which was approved by NASA in 2010, and the agency’s technology roadmaps.

The lab studies crystalized about three months ago when Charlie Harris, head of Langley's Research Directorate, joined VITAL, which already reached across the center’s organizations in its membership.

"The beauty that Charlie brought to us three months ago was looking at this from a technical capability standpoint," Mangum said. "We had been looking at it from a business plan standpoint."

Harris explained how laboratory needs merged with Langley’s missions. He also supported a forecast of a future with additional Computational Fluid Dynamics capabilities in aerospace, but added that there would always be a need for wind tunnels that have been the backbone of Langley’s research capability dating back nearly to the center’s inception in 1917.

"One of the core values of the center is that we will always need tools to conduct research and technology development,” Harris said. “No matter how CFD matures, there will always be a role in research for discovery. There will always be flow physics phenomena that we need to understand better. … There will always be a role for verification and validation."

That said, Harris added, facilities will have to become more versatile, and if other means of measurement develop and funding becomes dire, there is a possibility of merging wind tunnel and other research capabilities to eliminate redundancies. This is especially true as partnerships develop with industry to use Langley's facilities.

Part of the Revitalization Plan included several million dollars invested by programs and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on Langley's 14-by-22 Tunnel, NationalTransonic Facility and the LandIR facility, which is being used for testing the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Also, approximately $75 million has been spent in the past four years for critical infrastructure upgrades.

Harris also offered decision criteria used in establishing the Revitalization Plan and its timeline.

"We have taken a look at every building, every facility, every laboratory at the center, and we have looked at its future and its relevance in executing the NASA mission and how we can determine what to do with each of those assets so that we have a sustainable path forward," Harris said. "We believe that we have achieved that, and this will be the foundation of the Revitalization Plan."

Beyond that, it's important to understand that the plan is on paper, not stone. As NASA’s missions change, the capabilities of the center to support those missions will have to adapt to accommodate them.

"Developing a 20-year plan is somewhat like shooting at a moving target in the future," Harris said, acknowledging that the NASA mission changes, technologies evolve, new administrations in both NASA and the federal government come into office, and any number of other factors that determine what the agency will be doing in the coming years.

George Finelli, head of the Center Operations Directorate, which will be charged with implementing the plan, agreed.

"As good and comprehensive as this plan is, I think we all need to realize that it will be a living plan," said Finelli. "We're going to learn things as we move into this, and it requires adjustments."

The keys are having a plan and being proactive in fostering change at Langley.

"If we don't proactively address our aging infrastructure challenges, facility closures are going to happen," said Lesa Roe, the center director, "and probably in a way we don't want."

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
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