Week 23
November 15 - 19, 2004


It was back on the road for us this week. This time we headed off to parts west. We visited Ames Research Center in San Jose, California, Dryden Flight Center outside of Los Angeles and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It was quite an interesting week.

Monday was a travel day. We left about noon and got to San Jose late in the day. Unfortunately, it was too late to go into San Francisco and see any sights there, so we stayed around San Jose and had a delicious dinner at one of the local restaurants.

We spent Tuesday at Ames. I had only been to Ames once previously, when I was in graduate school. Ames managed the Pioneer Venus spacecraft whose data I used in my research. So, about all I knew about Ames before this trip was that they had done some planetary research at one time and that they had big wind tunnels. I recalled driving by the wind tunnels on my way to visit the Pioneer Venus researchers. While Ames still has the world's largest wind tunnel, doing wind tunnel research isn't their main focus these days (however, they did use their large wind tunnel to test the parachutes that were used as part of the entry systems for the Mars Exploration Rovers). They do a wide variety of research that encompasses everything from Air Traffic Control (ATC) modeling to nanotechnology research. We saw so many interesting things that I am not sure I can relate them all.

In the ATC arena Ames works with the FAA to improve airplane traffic management. They not only work on developing new ways to present air traffic information to the air traffic controllers to help the controllers better handle the crowded skies, but they also work on developing new traffic patterns for the country. They have a software program they are working on that processes all the real-time air traffic control data and makes predictions on when and where there might be conflicts between planes. We got to see this in action and it was quite interesting to see a large map of one of the ATC Centers (Ft. Worth Center, to be exact) with planes projected all over it that represented all the planes that were in the sky at that very moment. And, it was interesting to see when and where the program was predicting potential problems would be, i.e., where one plane would be getting into another's space, if the air traffic controllers didn't change a plane's course or speed. There are so many planes that go in and out of DFW all the time! It definitely takes a special kind of person to be an air traffic controller. With the skies getting more and more crowded and with the increased use of GPS data to create flight routes, the air traffic controllers are going to need some type of system like this to help them track all the airplanes out there.

And, speaking of lots of air traffic, Ames has a computer generated video from real data that shows all the air traffic in the U.S. over a 24 hour period. That was absolutely amazing to see. You could watch the ebbs and flows of the air traffic over the course of a day. What was really interesting was to see how in the very early morning hours, when most of the passenger planes have landed, the couriers, such as Fed Ex, start flying and really fill up the skies. At the peak of the day, there are roughly 4500 planes in the sky at one time. That is a lot of airplanes.

Ames has what they call the Crew Vehicle Systems Research Facility. In this facility they can simulate various cockpits to study avionics and crew resource management and/or they can study the air traffic controllers' interaction with the pilots. It is a pretty sophisticated setup. They have a place that they call the Future Flight Central where they study and train air traffic controllers (they can simulate just about any airport). This Future Flight Central facility can be integrated with the Crew Vehicle Systems facility for a giant simulation. They also have a 747 simulator that can be integrated with the other facilities. The 747 simulator can also be run standalone and we got to take it for a spin. I managed to land the plane starting from about a 6 mile final. That was definitely a thrill.

If all of these simulators weren't enough, Ames also has a vertical motion simulator. Now, this is a really nifty simulator. It can move something like 60 feet in the vertical and 40 feet in the lateral, along with associated pitches, yaws, and rolls. We in the human space flight program use this simulator to help train the Shuttle pilots. I wish we could have taken that for a spin. . .

In a completely different field of study Ames is working on what they call Mobile Agents. A Mobile Agent is a pretty nifty system for robotic assistance to humans who are working out in the field somewhere, such as on the Moon or Mars, or even on geology expeditions on the Earth. This Mobile Agent system can do a lot of different things. In the version we saw, which was field tested with geologists in Utah, its software was integrated with a rover. This rover would respond to voice commands and it could do such things as follow the geologist around (avoiding objects in its path) and take pictures when asked. It would be a mobile platform for tools. It would keep track of the day's schedules and notify (i.e., nag) the geologist that they are supposed to be working on a specific task. It would collect and distribute data - the geologist would tell the Agent to create a sample and relay a bunch of information about whatever they were studying to the Agent and the Agent would then organize the information and send it back to the researchers at home base. For all I know, it probably set up a web page with the information, too. And, of course, the rover would carry the rock samples. The Agent/rover had a GPS system to track their movements, and, thus, locating the sample collection point. And, it would track the biological data of the geologist - temperature, heart rate, whatever else the docs track. Geologists may not need this feature, but space walkers on another planet would. Is this not a fascinating system? I think I need a Mobile Agent at home. "Rover, bring me a sandwich. . ."

Let's see, what else can I say about what Ames does? They are the prime movers and shakers in entry systems design. They research the aerothermodynamics of entry systems, or, in other words, how you are going to enter various atmospheres and not burn up. This research includes everything from modeling the aerothermal environment to developing new thermal protection system materials. They do nanotechnology research - they are working with HP on making better computer chips for use in space, they are looking at carbon nanotube materials for protective shields - ones that could serve as thermal, radiation, and micro-meteoroid protection all rolled into one. These days, such protection is usually done by three different types of shields. Here is a fun fact - carbon nanotubes are seventeen times stronger than Kevlar. Ames has the world's largest supercomputer (we first heard about this supercomputer when we visited Stennis). They told us that it is on the order of 52 teraflops, has 10,000 processors wired together and is a result of a collaboration with Silicon Graphics and Intel. This supercomputer was made for Lawrence Livermore Labs for their bomb modeling. They also mentioned that IBM has a 70 teraflop supercomputer that IBM has "cobbled together" on their factory floor. But, since the IBM supercomputer isn't actually being used for anything and isn't out at a customer's facility, it doesn't really count in the world of supercomputers. At least that is what Ames says. I am sure IBM would say that it counted, but I am not going to take sides in the supercomputer world.

All of the above is just a taste of what Ames does. What they wanted us to remember - they have the world's largest wind tunnel, the world's largest flight simulator, and the fastest supercomputer. However, I am still wowed by their Mobile Agent.

When we were finished with our Ames tour, we hopped on a plane and jetted on down to Southern California. Well, jetted sort of - we flew Southwest. The next morning, we piled into our rental minivans and headed out to Dryden. Dryden is located a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles. It shares space with the Edwards Air Force Base. Dryden is the place where the rubber meets the road in flight testing, or, rather, where the wings and engines meet the sky. They do a whole host of flight testing. One of the things that they are testing is the flight control system for unmanned drones. They are currently working on how the drones can fly in formation. To do this, the drones need to know where the others are at all times which means fancy computers and satellites. To accomplish the testing one of the test pilots flies as the wingman for a drone. The pilots report that it is a lot harder than flying wingman for a piloted airplane since the usual visual communication between planes is not there, for example, one plane will rock its wings prior to starting a turn. A drone just turns and the pilot must play catch up. I guess that won't matter if the drones are only flying with drones.

Another item being researched at Dryden is the use of wing twist as a method of flight control, as opposed to the traditional rudder and aileron controls. They want to see if this method of flight control is more efficient than the current methods - that way planes would fly like birds fly by reshaping their wings. They have modified an F-18 to be able to produce wing twist. This testing is still in an early phase, so I don't know any results yet.

We also saw a Helios test article. Helios is a giant flexible solar powered wing, which you may have seen or heard about. One crashed in Hawaii not too long ago during some flight tests. This flying machine is designed to have scientific instruments attached and stay aloft for days, weeks, or months. The advantage that this machine has over satellites is that it can circle over a particular location (a non-geosynchronous satellite location) essentially forever. Let's say you wanted to constantly monitor a volcano - you could use a Helios-type aircraft to carry your particular instruments and circle the volcano until the cows came home. Or, until the volcano erupted and melted your aircraft. . .

Dryden is the place where they performed the X-43 Scramjet test. This is the jet engine that tested on Monday of this week. The scramjet was mounted on a Pegasus rocket that is mounted on the B-52. The plane goes up and drops the rocket, which then fires its engine and carries its payload, i.e., the X-43, higher in the atmosphere. The test was a success. If NASA goes forward with this technology, this type of jet engine would allow one to fly from coast to coast in about half an hour - that would sure beat the Concorde.

Because Edwards Air Force Base is a backup location for a Shuttle landing (in case there is bad weather in Florida), Dryden has a lot of Shuttle related equipment. They have all the equipment needed to safe the Shuttle after a flight. They have what is called the Crew Transport Vehicle, which is the big bus looking thing that the crews enter when leaving the Shuttle. We got to go inside the Transport Vehicle. It has a bunch of lounge chairs for the crew to rest in, as well as equipment and areas for the flight doctors to use to poke and prod the crew. Quite often at the conclusion of a flight there are medical tests that need to be done since astronauts are used as test subjects.

If a Shuttle does land at Edwards, then it must be flown back to Florida. They do this by putting the Shuttle on top of a 747. Dryden has the facilities to process the Shuttle for such a flight and the giant crane structure that will lift the Shuttle up onto the 747. The 747 is also stationed at Dryden and we got to see inside that as well. It has just about all the seats removed, there are still some up in the front of the plane, and there have been structural reinforcing beams added in the fuselage. It is quite an impressive sight. My classmates and I were thinking how fun it would be to do some zero-g parabolas in a 747 - there would be lots of room to bounce around!

There were some really nifty things to see at Dryden, but one of the best parts of the tour was one our tour guides. We were shown around by Gordon Fullerton who is a former astronaut. He flew on Apollo 9 as well as a couple of the early Shuttle flights. When his astronaut career was done, he decided that he really liked flying and wanted to keep doing it, so he has been out at Dryden working as a pilot ever since. In fact, he was the pilot that flew the B-52 that carried the X-43 Scramjet aloft for its flight test. He was such a delightful person. Actually, all the people and pilots that showed us around at Dryden were. It is clear that they love being in the flying business.

One of the pilots in my class was a test pilot at Edwards prior to be selected. Since we were in the neighborhood, he arranged for us to have a quick tour of the F-22 Raptor, the latest fighting machine being built for our military. The pilot in my class was one of the principle test pilots for the F-22 and had been spending his time putting it through its paces and testing its flight controls. We weren't allowed to get too close to the plane and everywhere we went, we had a person that followed us around with a red flashing light to signal that we weren't cleared for classified information. Even without any classified information we could tell it was a pretty durn nifty airplane.

The next day, Thursday, we went to JPL. This is the place I would want to be if I weren't in the human spaceflight business. I may be an astronaut now, but the researcher in me wants to study the planets. Actually, with the new exploration vision I may get to do both. I am very excited about the prospect that the human spaceflight program will get to work hand in hand with the robotic spaceflight programs. Too many people for too many years have pushed that exploration is an either/or proposition - robots or humans. I don't believe that that is the right answer. Each can do things that the other can't and together they can do so much more than they can individually. But, I digress. . .

After the usual welcomes and hellos, we spent some time with the science manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers. I tell you what, if you have not seen any of the pictures from Mars that the rovers have taken then you really need to go surf the web and look at some. They are breathtaking. What really gets me right in my core is to be able to see the tracks in the surface that the rovers have made. And to be able to see the discarded heat shields off in the distance. . .I can't even begin to explain how it makes me feel. To think that one day, off in the future, other generations may be strolling around another planet and will see the evidence from our fledgling space program.

These little Mars rovers are amazing. So is the way they got to the surface of Mars with the parachutes and airbags. Wow, I get excited just thinking about all of this again. At any rate, they have been roving around three times longer than expected and they are still going. Each afternoon the ground team meets and decides what the rovers are to do the next day and then they uplink the necessary commands to the rovers. The rovers can travel about 100 meters a day (the length of a football field) on a good day. When the crew on the ground tells the rovers where to go, they basically give a location and the rovers analyze the terrain and decide how they are going to get there. Occasionally, the rovers surprise the folks on the ground by their choice of path - they may head in completely the opposite direction based on what they think they need to avoid - but they always get to where they need to be. They can take great pictures (obviously) and they can do quite a bit of geologic analysis. We have learned so much about Mars because of them.

As part of our tour we got to see a facility where they do testing for the current program. One of the rovers is currently trekking up a fairly steep hill. In order to be sure that the rover could actually make it they built a similar hill in this facility. They use dirt imported from Arizona to simulate the Mars dirt. They have a test rover that they use to figure out how steep of an incline the rovers can go up. Last thing you want is your rover to fall over or get stuck.

We also got to see the control center where they control the rovers. The rovers are basically on opposite sides of Mars, so that when it is day for one rover it is night for the other. The rovers can only cruise around during the day because they need solar power to run their wheels and instruments (they have a rechargeable battery that runs heaters to keep the rovers warm enough during the cold nights). Because of this the two teams that work with each rover basically work opposite shifts. It works well because they have to share one control center and can get crowded when both teams are in at the same time. The scientists have lots more interesting science planned for the rovers, so let's keep our fingers crossed that they keep going. They told us that what they think will eventually lead to the rovers' demise is the temperature cycling that they see each day. I thought it might have been a degradation of the solar panels. At any rate, they experience quite a large temperature change between the Martian day and night (a hundred degrees or more) and this causes a lot of expansion and contraction of parts and eventually all of this cycling will lead to materials fatigue and the rovers will crump out.

After we were done with the rovers tour, we got to see the control center when JPL monitors some 120 satellites and probes. All the data from all these different spacecraft come into this facility and technicians who are sitting in front of large monitors read the ones and zeros and determine which spacecraft is sending what information. They then route the data to the appropriate researcher wherever in the word the researcher happens to be located. When they were explaining this control center to us I had visions of the technicians reading the matrix (if you don't know the movie, never mind), because that is essentially what they are doing. I had no idea that JPL provided this function (I never really thought about where all the spacecraft data went). They collect data from the planetary probes, from the solar probes, and from satellites around Earth. And all of this information comes to one spot and they sort it all out. When I think about how one plans for where you need to point your antenna at what time to collect data from 120 different spacecraft each day, it really sinks in how complicated the data collection business is.

In the afternoon we had a briefing by one of the scientists involved with the Cassini mission. You may recall that the Cassini probe has recently reached Saturn and is just starting its scientific investigations of the planet. Cassini was the probe that sent back those amazing photographs of Saturn's rings. The person that gave this talk was quite an engaging speaker. He was very enthusiastic and funny. In his spare time he is a consultant to Hollywood for many of the sci-fi shows. I want to say that he was the prime consultant on the show Battlestar Galactica, but it seems like that show would have been created before his science career. Maybe not. Well, if it weren't Battlestar Galactica, it was something like that - Babylon 5, maybe. Anyway, it is nice to know that Hollywood is consulting with some really sharp and talented people.

January will be a very exciting time for the Cassini mission. On Christmas a secondary probe will be launched from the Cassini spacecraft that will land in January on Saturn's moon Titan. I can't wait to see what they learn from that probe.

Wow! We have hardware cruising around Mars. We have spacecraft in orbit around Saturn and that will soon land on a moon of Saturn. We are going to have a probe around Mercury soon. We have had spacecraft at Jupiter and Venus. We have had spacecraft leave our solar system. I get shivers just thinking about the amazing things that JPL has done.

Our final briefing of the day was on the Spitzer Space Telescope. This is another telescope in the series of Great Observatory telescopes (which also includes the Hubble, the Chandra, and the Gamma Ray Observatory - each studies the skies in different wavelengths). The Spitzer looks at stars in the infrared spectrum. It is able to see areas that appear dark in the visible because dust is absorbing the visible light. The infrared light gets through the dust. The pictures and information the astronomers are receiving are so interesting. They are primarily using Spitzer to examine how galaxies, stars, and planets form. I encourage you to go surf the web and find Spitzer pictures. Simply beautiful!

After our Spitzer briefing they had to tear me away from JPL and we headed to the airport. Because of the time zones, we got back at a ridiculously late hour. Actually, it was a ridiculously early hour Friday morning. I know I spent some time in the office Friday afternoon, but I can't say that I was good for much as I wasn't able to sleep any on the flights home. So I caught up on some e-mail and thought about voyaging to the planets.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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Revised 12-16-04