NASA Podcasts

NASA 360 Season 3, show 21
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NASA 360: Wallops Flight Facility

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IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):

Jennifer Pulley -- Co-host
Johnny Alonso -- Co-host
Sarah Daugherty -- WFF
John Dickerson -- WFF
Brian Hall -- WFF
Shane Dover -- WFF
Debbie Fairbrother -- WFF


Jennifer: Let me ask you a quick question. If you had to guess, which NASA facility would you say has the most rocket launches every year? You might think Kennedy Space Center in Florida, right? It's not. It's actually right here on the eastern shore of Virginia at NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

Johnny: Yeah, the Wallops Flight Facility. It's awesome. Not only do they launch a ton of rockets here every year, but they also do this critical aeronautics research and far-reaching scientific investigations in the U.S. and around the world too. All this is launched and managed on this tiny island. Hey, I'm Johnny Alonso.

Jennifer: And I'm Jennifer Pulley. And today on NASA 360, we'll take a closer look at the suborbital launches that are being conducted here at NASA Wallops Flight Facility all to help us better understand our world and our universe.

Jennifer: Nestled along the Atlantic Ocean, just across the road from the famous ponies of Chincoteague and not too far from Washington, D.C., this facility is an ideal site to launch orbital and suborbital payloads. It was originally established in 1945 to conduct aeronautical research using rocket-propelled vehicles that help us better understand aerodynamic and heat transfer issues on aircraft. Some of the first tests involved strapping unmanned aircraft models onto rockets and blasting them off. Back then, there were no computers or wind tunnels that could provide enough data for us to understand the burgeoning supersonic flight industry. Pilotless aircraft tests were the main tests performed here until 1957, when the soviets sent sputnik into space. After that, the space race was on, so Wallops' mission changed somewhat. Soon Wallops researchers began testing NASA-developed components of the human space program such as capsule escape techniques, research and re-entry and life-support systems, and not to mention the technologies and instruments for solar satellites, astrophysics, geospace, astronomy, microgravity, and telescopes. Since its first research launch on July 4, 1945, through today, the Wallops launch facilities have sent up over 16,000 rockets that have increased our scientific knowledge.

Jennifer: Of course, launching rockets today is a very sophisticated undertaking. Because there are so many variables at play, researchers here at Wallops must manage each launch very carefully. To do this, all the most important information -- from safety, weather, communications, and launch and abort features -- all happen at a facility called the range control center. In this building, teams of people sitting at the different consoles prepare and monitor each launch to make sure they go off without a hitch. One of the most important positions at the range control center on a launch day is that of the Test Director. The Test Director takes feedback from the different team members to ensure the mission will be a success. Johnny spoke with test directors Sarah Daugherty and John Dickerson to find out a little more about the range facility on a launch day.

Johnny: This place is, like, really cool. I mean, it's kind of like Mission Control.

Sarah: Yeah, that's exactly what it is. It's the Range Control Center. It's a main information hub for data that we're gathering on the day of launch as we're going through the countdown and getting ready to launch a rocket.

Johnny: And what's its main purpose?

Sarah: We gather information here from the radars that are tracking from the surveillance aircraft and ships and from -- the rocket itself is sending us data. And we put it on a bunch of computer monitors and screens here in the center so people that need to make decisions on it or monitor status can see what's going on while we're going through the countdown and when we get to T-minus zero and beyond.

Johnny: You have some awesome screens here. Can you tell me which -- what they represent?

Sarah: Sure. We put any kind of data that we're gathering here on the screens. So we're looking at the real-time flight trajectory of the launch vehicle while it's launching so we can see its actual position in time. We're looking at weather displays. We're monitoring surveillance cameras that we have that are looking at the vehicle on the pad, or they're looking at boats that are getting too close to the coast. So we're monitoring all that. And we can change any display that we want to up here, just what's relevant at the time as we go through the countdown.

Jennifer: As Sarah mentioned, on a launch day, there is constant surveillance happening to assure the safety of everyone involved. Launching rockets is inherently dangerous, and mission directors keep a close eye on radar and safety personnel to make sure the launch area is clear of aircraft or boaters near the launch zone during a flight. This can be a daunting task due to the sheer number of vehicles launched here every year. Everything from relatively small sounding rockets to the larger Taurus-class rockets will launch from here. To find out more about the different types of rockets launched from Wallops Flight Facility, Johnny caught up with John Dickerson.

Dickerson: We have both orbital and suborbital vehicles. Our suborbital vehicles are what we typically call sounding rockets. The orbital vehicles are like the Minotaur-class vehicles. The suborbital vehicles, we launch maybe two or three, maybe four a year from here. And then we have ranges outside of here that we go and launch from. The orbital missions like the Minotaur-class missions, we maybe get one or two of those every two years. We're currently building a new facility for Taurus II, which is resupply the station, that sort of thing. Much larger class of vehicle.

Johnny: Do you only launch rockets here?

Dickerson: No, we launch UASs, unmanned aerial systems. We test aircraft. We have ultra high-duration balloon facilities. We actually build and make rockets here, so we got a whole host of things that we do, not only doing rockets, but we do a bunch of other stuff as well.

Johnny: Hey, thanks so much for having us at Mission Control.

Dickerson: No problem.

Johnny: It's awesome. Hey, don't go anywhere. You're watching NASA 360.

Jennifer: As we just saw, there is a very complex system to launching rockets. Currently, Wallops averages about 30 launches per year, with a majority of those launches being sounding rockets. Now, right now, we're inside the unique facility that manufactures many of the components and then integrates them into the sounding rockets. Let's speak with my buddy Brian Hall to find out more about sounding rockets and how they're being used here. Okay, Brian, what is a sounding rocket? How is that different from, say, like, Saturn V, a huge rocket?

Hall: Sounding rockets are smaller rockets consisting of one to four solid rocket motor stages and the payloads that allow researchers to get low-cost, quick-turnaround access to space.

Jennifer: Okay, and in this building, there's actually a full-scale sounding rocket here.

Hall: This is full-scale model of a two-stage sounding rocket vehicle with a representative science payload on top.

Jennifer: Okay, and inside the payload is...

Hall: The science instrument along with our systems that allow them to collect their data.

Jennifer: Okay, so where do you find these rockets?

Hall: Most of our rockets are actually surplus military assets that were gonna be excessed, and we utilize them to keep our program costs low.

Jennifer: So, Brian, how do sounding rockets work?

Hall: Sounding rockets consist of payload and motor systems. The first-stage motor is ground-fired. Subsequent stages are fired during flight. And those stages will loft the payload anywhere from 30 to 950 miles (48 to 1,529 km) and provide flight durations from 5 to about 20 minutes.

Jennifer: Okay, so you're talking pretty high up. Is that considered out of Earth's orbit?

Hall: Actually, they do not have enough velocity to escape earth's gravity, so they fly along a parabolic trajectory.

Jennifer: Okay. And are they recoverable? Where do they land?

Hall: Some of our missions are recovered. We launch missions out of Wallops Flight Facility, and they're recovered from the water. And also out of White Sands Missile Range in new mexico; they're recovered on land. And routinely, those payloads are refurbed and re-flown later for subsequent science missions.

Jennifer: You mentioned using surplus military rockets. Do you design or build any here at Wallops?

Hall: We actually take the surplus military motors and design a vehicle configuration from those motors.

Jennifer: So is this the building where they're actually designed and built?

Hall: All the design and fabrication and assembly takes place in this building. The rockets go through a very rigorous test program, the payloads especially. We're in the environmental lab facility right now, where we take them through a battery of tests to make sure they'll survive the rough sounding rocket flight environment. And we also conduct a vast number of test flights to make sure they're gonna survive the flight environment prior to using them on science missions.

Jennifer: Brian, talk to me about this room. What kind of testing goes on here?

Hall: This is a large concrete and steel reinforced room with a Kevlar curtain there to allow us to test any in-flight deployments or other mechanisms prior to flying them on a science mission. A payload system would be mounted on the turntable there. It would be spun up to its flight environment. And we would actually monitor through video systems the actual events. And the events are triggered safely by a technician outside the chamber.

Jennifer: So, Brian, what are the advantages of using these smaller sounding rockets?

Hall: Because they are low-cost, quick-turnaround, they provide a platform for instruments to be tested on these smaller rockets at much lower cost before they go on to the bigger rockets and larger orbital satellite missions.

Jennifer: I had mentioned that Wallops launches approximately 30 rockets a year. That seems like a lot.

Hall: It is a lot, yes. Our program launches anywhere from 20 to 30 a year, depending on the science, and from locations all over the world. Our vehicle and payload systems are portable, as well as the Wallops range systems are portable. So we go where the science is. If there's a certain phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis that's common in Alaska, we'll take payload systems up there to launch and study the aurora in-situ, in time, and in place, while the phenomenon is occurring.

Jennifer: Wonderful, it's kind of like you just pack it up and go on a road trip.

Hall: Yes.

Jennifer: So, Brian, when you're testing with these sounding rockets, do you usually test them to failure?

Hall: Actually, we test our systems to failure in the initial design phase, and then we'll test them to various qualification levels that ensure they'll survive flight.

Jennifer: Okay. Why?

Hall: Because our program is a little bit different than NASA's primary mission where failure is not an option, our program accepts a lot more risk, because we want to keep the costs low. We want to develop new systems for larger NASA missions.

Jennifer: Walk us through the process of designing and building a rocket, a sounding rocket.

Hall: Our mission life cycles span anywhere from a couple of months to around two years. In that process, we get the requirements from the science researcher. We take those requirements, design the payload systems, pick out the vehicle, design the trajectory. Then we actually build most of the hardware in our facility here, do the assembly. And then we'll bring it to our test labs and test it and make sure it's ready for flight. Then we'll ship it out to the launch head and actually conduct the launch operations.

Jennifer: You said two months. I mean, a couple of months, that's a pretty quick turnaround.

Hall: That is a very quick turnaround. That's some of our simple payloads. Yeah, an advantage to having these smaller rockets, I suppose.

Jennifer: What is so unique about NASA Wallops Flight Facility and specifically this building in designing and building sounding rockets?

Hall: We're the only group within NASA that actually does this type of work. We're very unique in the government as well. Consequently, we support not only NASA. We also support many government agencies and universities who are looking to conduct science research.

Jennifer: Brian, thank you so much.

Hall: It was a pleasure.

Jennifer: We appreciate the lowdown on NASA's sounding rockets. Stick around. You're watching NASA 360. We'll be right back.

Johnny: Okay, so far, we got a pretty good idea about what's going on on the rocket launch side of the facility. But folks here are also working on cutting-edge aeronautics research as well. Whether it's supporting ice studies in Greenland or flying UAVs through hurricanes, researchers here are using a variety of different types of aircraft to do cutting-edge research. I spoke with Shane Dover to find out a little more about the flight program here at Wallops. Shane, where are we?

Dover: We're at Wallops flight facility's hangar N-159, home of the airborne science program.

Johnny: Right on, man. So look, I see a couple planes you guys are working on back here. Can you tell me a little bit about them?

Dover: Sure, this is the P-3 orion. It was originally placed in service in the 1960s, 1970s time frame from the United States Navy. We've retrofitted these particular aircraft for NASA airborne science.

Johnny: So wait; you just mentioned that these planes are from the '60s. I mean, is it cool to use older planes?

Dover: Yeah, these planes, although they were built in the '60s and '70s, they're still in service with the United States Navy, and they'll be in service till about the year 2025, 2030. So as long as the plane is maintained well, it can fly a very long time.

Johnny: What kind of missions are you doing here?

Dover: Well, the aircraft in general, we modify heavily from mission to mission. We fly a wide variety of missions, everything from atmospheric chemistry missions to the most recent deployment we did in Greenland for the Operation Ice Bridge. That mission flies low-altitude lasers. It uses radar systems. It uses a device that measures the Earth's gravity, believe it or not. And a magnetometer uses that suite of instrumentation to measure the depth and volume of ice. That mission is repeated year after year, and that allows us to get an idea of changes in that climate in Greenland.

Johnny: Why in Greenland?

Dover: Well, Greenland represents the northern polar ice cap. Greenland is unique in that it has this very mountainous exterior, but the middle is all ice cap. So by measuring the depth of that ice cap and where that ice sheds into the ocean, we get an idea of the rate of change of the volume of that ice cap from year to year. Gives us an idea on global climate change.

Johnny: Greenland's, like, a couple thousand miles away. I mean, do you guys, like, fly, you know, from here back and forth? I mean, do you stay there? What's the deal?

Dover: Yeah, we go to Greenland, and then we operate out of two major airfields in Greenland: Thule Air Force Base and Sondrestrom, which is an airfield a couple hours south of Thule. From there, we launch about eight-hour profile missions. Those missions go out over the ice cap, make their measurements, and return to that airfield. During that deployment, we flew 75,000 statute miles (120,700 km). That's about three times the circumference around the Earth at its equator.

Johnny: So tell me, why is the P-3 such a great platform?

Dover: The P-3 is a heavily modifiable airplane. It's safe. It's reliable. It allows us to fly those low-altitude mission profiles with a very large suite of instrumentation on board, gathering the most data possible during that time frame. Then its performance capability allows us to fly into these fjords and down in these glacier regions. And then if we did have a malfunction or a problem, we could climb out of there. It has a lot of excess power, a lot of performance capability.

Johnny: All right, so, I mean, you're flying these larger craft, okay. What about, like, the smaller ones, like UAVs?

Dover: UAVs definitely have a role in airborne science and, i think, an increasing role. UAVs are good because they don't put a man in a loop, especially in some of those regions you would not want to fly. UAVs can fly missions low, over the ocean, in the middle of a hurricane, and there's really not a risk to that particular platform. So that's the sort of mission that you'd fly with a UAV that you wouldn't necessarily want to fly with a manned platform.

Johnny: Hey, Shane, thanks so much for having us out here today. And good luck on your missions, man.

Dover: Thanks, Johnny. Thanks for having NASA 360 come by.

Johnny: No worries. See you again.

Jennifer: So far, we've seen how Wallops researchers are using different types of rockets and aircraft for scientific study. But get this -- they're also using high-altitude research using one of the oldest flying devices known to man: the balloon. I spoke with Debbie Fairbrother here at the balloon program office to find out more.

Fairbrother: NASA does scientific research on high-altitude research balloons. The balloons that we fly are a low-cost, quick-response access to near space. So they're similar to a satellite-type mission without the expense of a rocket launch and getting manifested and the time duration. We can support universities with grad students. They can work on an instrument from the origins up to building it up in flight and get their data within their PhD.

Jennifer: That's fascinating.

Fairbrother: It really is. We basically can fly large science instruments to about 120,000 feet (36,576 m), which is above 99.9 percent of the atmosphere, for durations of one week to a month or so. And our target is to fly for up to 100 days.

Jennifer: Let's get down to the basics here. How do you get these balloons off the ground, where do they go, and how do they fly?

Fairbrother: Basically, we put the amount of helium in them that we need on the ground. We have a launch crew that will lay out the balloon with a parachute and then the payload. The flight train at launch sometimes is up to 1,000 feet (305 m). So once we let it go, the balloon -- the gases in the balloon -- the helium expands and expands and expands until it's finally fully inflated at float, which is typically between 110,000 and 130,000 feet (33,528 and 39,624 m). Now, think: planes fly at about 30,000 to 40,000 feet (9,144 to 12,192 m). So we're way high -- 99.9% of the atmosphere, we're above. Essentially we fly with the wind. So mother nature is in charge. So we have meteorologists on staff that are looking at the wind forecasts and understanding the patterns of the winds at the different times of the years that we fly so that they can predict where the balloon will go. We can take with our 40-million-cubic-foot (1,132,674 cubic meters) zero-pressure balloon, which is made out of 0.8-mil (0.03 inch) film -- an example is right here, that thickness of material. We can lift about 6,000 pounds (2,722 kg) to 130,000 feet (12,192 m).

Jennifer: Underneath this balloon.

Fairbrother: Right.

Jennifer: Okay, so again, more perspective: 6,000 pounds (2,722 kg) is about...

Fairbrother: A car or two. A car or two. [laughter] Depends on how big your car is.

Jennifer: I mean, this is so thin. This is amazing.

Fairbrother: Yeah, so we have to do some special testing to make sure that it can handle the really cold temperatures as you go up through the atmosphere.

Jennifer: And then what about this payload that you're talking about? How-- the payload's underneath this balloon. The balloon is flying via mother nature.

Fairbrother: With the wind.

Jennifer: Okay, with the wind. How are you seeing what's going on? How are you monitoring that?

Fairbrother: Sure. Within line of sight, we get a high data rate back from the instrument. But once we leave the local area where we launched from, we use the satellites. We either fly Iridium or TDRSS communications, so they basically go from the balloon to the satellite down to the earth. And so the scientist is getting their data or at least some of it as the balloon flight is going on. They can make changes to the flight software if they need to. So we're constantly monitoring these balloons. When we fly an LDD, or long-duration flight, from Antarctica--

Jennifer: Which is how long again?

Fairbrother: Anywhere from a couple weeks to-- the longest we've flown is 42 days. And usually the limiting factor isn't the balloon itself. It's that the science is either over, or they're at a good place for recovery and they want to get their instrument back so they can refurbish it. So at the end of the flight, we can send a command to separate the bottom of the balloon from the top of the parachute. And so the payload comes down on the parachute and impacts the ground, and then the balloon comes down and is collected and destroyed.

Jennifer: Okay, so we have this balloon, and underneath it is this payload. What type of experiments-- science is going on?

Fairbrother: It's typically space science research, either telescopes looking out into space or detectors collecting particles from space. We also have some earth science missions, and we are a good test bed for education outreach as well as for technology demonstrations.

Jennifer: Debbie, you mentioned the united states as a place where these balloons fly. Where in the United States?

Fairbrother: We fly from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and Palestine, Texas. And then internationally, we fly from Sweden or Australia and Antarctica. It all depends on where the science need is. And so we support campaign where the science needs to be flown from.

Jennifer: And you go there.

Fairbrother: Yes.

Jennifer: What's next? What's next? You're gonna take this super-pressure balloon, and you're gonna fly that.

Fairbrother: We're gonna fly it. The next balloon that we're gonna fly is a little bit bigger than we flew this year. It's targeting 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) to 110,000 feet (33,528 m). So of course, our scientists always want a heavier payload to a higher altitude. So the ultimate goal right now is on the order of about a 26 million cubic feet (736,238 cubic meters) in volume Super-Pressure Balloon. And so that system would be wonderful for mid-latitude flight. So when we fly from either Brazil or Australia, we'll be able to circle the globe, essentially, at a constant altitude. So that's our goal is to basically provide a stable platform for the scientists.

Jennifer: Debbie, these balloons are made with this material you've shown us, very, very thin. How are they kept together? I see these ridges in the balloon, so it kind of looks like a seam.

Fairbrother: Right, exactly.

Jennifer: What is that?

Fairbrother: So each gore-- or each segment is a specific gore. And there's a plant in Texas that has tables as long as we need them. The plant itself is 800 feet long by 50 feet wide (243.84 by 15.24 meters). And so if i need a balloon that's 660 feet (201 m), they've got a table -- or a segment of tables -- that's 660 feet (201 m) long. And basically, the crew walks down and melts the material together.

Debbie: It's not stitched together to form these seams.

Jennifer: Right, it's not sewn.

Fairbrother: It's heat-welded. It's basically melted or heat-sealed together. So you'll see this darker piece right here. This is our seal. And so they basically have the machine that does it, but they walk down the table. And it's so strong that it keeps these balloons in flight for that duration carrying that much payload.

Jennifer: That's just amazing to me.

Fairbrother: It's fun.

Jennifer: It really is. Debbie, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

Jennifer: So, Johnny, as we've seen, right, this tiny island is a major player in the science game. And in the near future, we're gonna see many more launches, including laddie, the science mission to the moon. Wallops will also see new launch facilities that will allow the Taurus 2 to resupply the international space station. In fact, whether researchers want to go low over the ocean, to the moon, or anywhere in between, Wallops will get them there. And so with all this going on, it's easy to see why Wallops is so proud to have a prominent role in NASA's future explorations.

Johnny: That's right. Hey, that's it for now. I'm Johnny Alonso.

Jennifer: And I’m Jennifer Pulley. We'll catch you next time on NASA 360.


Jennifer: Okay, so far, we got a pretty good idea about what's going on on the rocket side of the facility-- rocket launch side of the facility, yup.

Johnny: Absolutely.

Johnny: Thanks a lot. St-- yeah, right. There's a lot of racket in my brain. So with all this going on, it's easy to see why--

Johnny: It's not just me. [laughing] not only do they launch a ton of rockets here every year, but they also do this critical aeronautics research and-- sorry. One more time. One more time. When you think about sending rockets on-- up--

Jennifer: As we just saw, there's a very large--no. No, no, no. Currently, Wallops-- [indistinct speech over p.a.] That's funny, isn't it? It's funny.

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