NASA Social At NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (Day Two)

Day Two of the NASA Social at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base started much as Day One had — early!


For the record, I’ve posted dozens if not hundreds of sunset photos on this site over the past nineteen months – I’m pretty sure this is the first sunrise photo.

We all trekked out into the desert to be at the Edwards AFB West Gate by 0730 PST (which means an 0630 departure from the hotel, which means an 0500 wake up) only to have “issues” with the gate security. Most of us got held up for over an hour. I’m not sure what issues the Air Force has with NASA, not my float, but it left us running almost an hour and a half late getting started.

But once we got started (and everyone was great about accommodating us and just slipping our appointment times) it was some seriously good stuff. Just like Day One!


Al Bowers, Chief Scientist at NASA Armstrong, had an extremely interesting talk about the 1984 Controlled Impact Demonstrator test, in which a fully loaded & instrumented 707 was flown by remote control and crashed deliberately. The test was designed to see if a fuel additive would keep fuel from burning in a crash, but the plane landed off target (it was supposed to be going straight and come down on that “X”, not 410 feet to the right as seen here) and turned into a huge fireball.

The FAA, which paid for the test, was not happy and apparently there are still those there who hold a grudge. (In flying circles it’s common to say that the FAA’s motto is, “We’re not happy until you’re not happy!” So…thanks, Dr. Bowers, for a job well done!) But while they didn’t see what they wanted to see, they did learn a tremendous amount, all of which went into improvements in aviation safety that you see today. While there are still crashes and deaths, the number of deaths caused by post-impact fires has dropped to almost nothing.


Doctor Christian Gelzer, Chief Historian at NASA Armstrong gave us a talk on the history of “fly-by-wire” (FBW) control systems. The short version is that in an older commercial or military plane, and still in almost all light general aviation aircraft, controls on the plane (yoke, rudder, trim) are connected to rods and levers and maybe hydraulic systems, which are in turn connected directly to the ailerons, flaps, and rudder. In a FBW system, which now includes all military aircraft and the vast majority of all commercial airliners, the controls talk to a computer and the computer talks to a motor attached to the ailerons, flaps, and rudder to move them in the way the pilot is commanding.

The vehicle shown (remember it for later) is the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, which was the first FBW aircraft. It was developed in the mid-1960s to train the Apollo astronauts on how to land on the moon. It must have worked – six of six landings went just fine!


When it came time to start testing FBW on other aircraft, the biggest problem was that the computers of the day weren’t up to the task. Eventually they used the only portable, reliable, and rugged computer on the planet that could do the trick, a leftover Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). These were made to take the Apollo spacecraft to the moon and back, but the Apollo program got cut back after Apollo 13, leaving spare AGCs.

Things were fine, until the Display & Keyboard (DSKY) unit failed. There weren’t any spares. None had been made. None were ever going to be made.


This is the actual piece of hardware that they obtained to solve the problem. This “spare” DSKY was taken from the Apollo 15 Command Module after the spacecraft had returned from the moon.


How much did I squeeeee to be able to not only see and photograph but to touch and push the buttons on the actual honest-to-God flight computer that had gone TO THE FREAKIN’ MOON & BACK? It just might have been a significant amount — and as far as I could see, the other 30+ participants at the NASA Social were squeeeeee-ing right along with me.


Once we had taken a break and I had (at least figuratively) taken a cold shower, Mark Skoog, Chief Engineer of the Automatic Systems Project Office, gave a fantastic presentation on the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (AutoGCAS). In short, the military has a problem with too many pilots flying perfectly good, healthy, functioning aircraft into the ground or the sides of mountains. This can be caused by fog and clouds, by pilots being temporarily disabled by high G-forces, or by pilots distracted by other tasks in the cockpit.

What the AutoGCAS system has done is take a 3-D digital database of the entire freakin’ planet and condensed it down to where it will fit into a smart phone, with plenty of room to spare. (This is mind boggling to me, but they’ve done it so it must not be as impossible as I would have guessed.) Then they wrote programs for the smart phone which will constantly track the plane’s location and course in 3-D, compare it to the database, and determine when a collision is imminent. Then the system uses the plane’s autopilot to override the pilot and take the last safe option out at the last possible second.


The system is now up and running in F-16s and is being installed in other fighters. Furthermore, it’s being developed for use by the civilian commercial and general aviation markets. On a plane like the Cessna 172s which I fly, it might not be able to take control of the plane in an emergency (a light Cessna usually doesn’t have an autopilot that has the capabilities to do that) but it will be able to run on your smart phone and give you warnings and directions.

There is a fantastic video regarding this project on NASA’s YouTube channel here. Most of the models, remote control centers, and several of the people shown in this video are people and things we met and saw.


Now it was time to boogie out into the field again. First stop was the Flow Visualization Facility, where Jennifer Cole showed us how a giant water tank pumps water past a model being tested. Here you can see the clear, plexiglass testing chamber with the white model of an F-18 fighter pointing up into the flowing water. The models are made very precisely with ultra fine tubes built in, connected to holes in the body of the model. When the water flows and colored dye is pushed out through the holes, the dye will eddy and stream to show where the areas of turbulence and laminar flow exist.


Next was the Flight Load Lab, where Larry Hudson showed us how materials are tested to see how they react to stress, temperature changes, or dynamic loads. (The lab just had its 50th anniversary.) Materials act differently when very cold at high altitude or very hot when heated by air friction at high Mach numbers. In this lab they can test (to destruction, if necessary) everything from small parts to entire planes.


In the lab, being tested for balance and dynamic loads was this scale model of a concept being developed at NASA Armstrong for an unmanned glider which could be used to launch rockets into low Earth orbit (LEO). Similar to Virgin Galactic’s “White Knight 2” carrier airplane, this plane would have much longer wings and be towed to altitude (carrying in the middle the rocket to be launched) by a simple business jet or military cargo jet. At 40,000 feet, the glider cuts loose, the tow plane boogies, and the rocket is launched from the glider.

They believe that this system (which is still a decade away from being in service) could launch twice as much payload at half the cost of launch vehicles today. I asked and was told that it can also be scaled up to the point where manned spacecraft, such as Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser could be sent into orbit.


This is a ring being tested in the Load Lab for the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) project (NASA video here). To get a bigger heat shield without needing a bigger rocket, HIAD will use a series of inflatable rings. When the rings inflate, with the rings of different sizes stacking to look like that children’s toy, you can make a 25 meter heat shield fit into a 5 meter rocket fairing. This in turn lets you land a much bigger spacecraft on someplace like Mars.


In the lab we also saw a demonstration of how fiber optic stress sensors work. The tan stripe on this model is a long fiber optic sensor. A remote control unit let us bend the wings, and the display behind it showed how the computer picked up the data from that sensor and could display and record it.


We went to another of the main NASA Armstrong buildings and saw this ginormous painting by Robert McCall. McCall is one of my all-time favorites due to his work in space and aviation art. He worked on the concept drawings for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, has had hundreds of paintings commissioned for NASA centers all over the country, and has even had his artwork featured on US postage stamps.

This is a huge McCall painting, wonderful in its detail, typical of his style in the way color is used and the wonder of flight and spaceflight is portrayed. Marvelous to see!


In that building we saw a couple of the NASA Global Hawk UAVs. These are used by NASA to fly long missions, up to twenty-four hours at a time (or longer) in order to gather data on atmospheric conditions, weather, and hurricanes. They are flown remotely from either NASA Armstrong, NASA Wallops Island in Virginia, or a portable mission control setup.


One example of their use was given in the study of a recent hurricane. There was a manned plane flying high above the hurricane where it was relatively safe. Being more rugged (and expendable) because it is unmanned, the Global Hawk flew through the hurricane’s eye at a much lower altitude as the manned plane flew above it. With both vehicles dropping instrument packages on parachutes, it was the first time that a fully three-dimensional set of data had been collected in the eye of a hurricane. This data will be invaluable for researchers trying to understand hurricanes and how to predict them.


We were almost done, but as a special treat we got to see the original M2-F1 lifiting body. This manned test aircraft was built on a shoestring budget in 1963 at a boat shop. It is lightweight and was tested by towing it behind one of the engineers’ Pontiac convertible which could make it up to 120 MPH. Later tests took it to altitude and hundreds of test flights were made. Later designs based on the M2-F1 were bigger, heavier, and more complex. Early designs for the Space Shuttle looked at this design, but gave us the familiar Space Shuttle look when the need for a large cargo bay was specified.

Standing in front of the M2-F1 is Peter Merlin who is a treasure trove of knowledge about the history of Edwards, NASA Dryden (the former name of NASA Armstrong), and the planes who flew there. If you ever get a chance to see him give a talk, take it!


In the garage behind the M2-F1 was the last of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicles. Remember, I told you above to remember that fly-by-wire slide. Here it is! (Cue more über-squeeee-ing!) In the center left you can see the pilot’s compartment cantilevered off of one side. The large jet engine, pointed straight down, is in the center.


From the other side you can see several of the round fuel tanks that held the rocket propellant for the eight small rocket thrusters that moved it from side to side to control .


Cantilevered off of the other side is the box containing the three analog computers. (Note again, analog – not digital!) They were hard wired and it was noted that to change their programs you had to use a soldering iron. Now you can see why they needed to use the Apollo Guidance Computers to step up to an even more complex fly-by-wire test.

There’s a great documentary from NASA on this test aircraft here. There’s also a good short documentary here about Neil Armstrong’s accident flying with an LLRV that almost meant that someone else would have been the first man on the moon.


We were almost done for the day. We got some closing comments from Kevin Roher, the Chief of Strategic Communications at NASA Armstrong, and Kate Squires, Social Media Manager at NASA Armstrong, but really the official cat herder who ran this event and kept us all going from site to site, from one amazing thing to another. Props also to Barbara Buckner and the dozens of other people who helped to make this event happen.


One final unofficial stop on the way out was at the Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum. Many cool things there,including the X-48C test aircraft. This scale aircraft has been used for extensive flight testing of blended wing designs for future commercial aircraft.


Above your head is a very early gyrocopter, and an exact model of the Bell X-1 aircraft which Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier. (The actual original aircraft is in the main hall of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.)


Outside of the Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum, there are a couple dozen planes parked on display. This is an up close and personal look at the nose of an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest and highest reconnaissance and research aircraft ever flown. The F-15 flew higher, and there are probably a couple others to do so, but the Blackbird was the only one put into production and used regularly for decades. The last I heard, NASA still had at least one that was still flying, but that may have changed by now. (Something to Google later.)


We were getting a great sunset over the museum and the planes and rockets. The B-52 “BUFF” that I shared later that night is on the far right in the distance.

IMG_5393Finally, the prototype A-10 Warthog, the YA-10B can be seen on the left with an F-4C Phantom II on the right, the final fading rays of the sun on the clouds above. You’ve got to love the F-4, proof that if you have a big enough engine, you can make a brick fly at Mach 2.2+.

Now you know why I was exhausted when I got home three hours after this on Wednesday night!

What an incredible event, and I can’t give enough thanks to Kate Squires, Kevin Roher, Peter Merlin, Barbara Bucker, Tom Rigney Al Bowers, Christian Gelzer, David McBride, Robert Lightoot, Larry Hudson, Jennifer Cole, Manny Antimisairis, Tom Miller, Scott Howe, Hernan Posada, Mark Skoog, Christ Naftel, George Welsh, and everyone else who made it happen!

Some time in the next few days, there will be more pictures to share. All of the pictures shown here and on Tuesday were taken with my iPhone in order to make them easy to tweet, post to Facebook, post here, and share ASAP. Next I’ll start going through the higher quality photos from my DSLRs. (I take a LOT of pictures!)

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