NASA's Langley Research Center (LRC) in Hampton, Va., celebrated its 95th anniversary this past weekend with a rare open house.
Visitors parked near the main gate and boarded buses for free guided tours of the center. Scientists and engineers shared their work and the facilities with visitors at more than a dozen stops including wind tunnels, structural and materials research, atmospheric research and unmanned vehicles. There were hands-on physics activities and shows for kids, demonstrations from a student robotics team, and a full-sized model of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity. Astronaut Anna Fisher talked with visitors as well.
LRC is home to five national historic landmarks, including three wind tunnels which contributed to the design of the space shuttle and the F-16 and which ran nearly 24/7 during World War II testing full-size aircraft during that era. Also on that historic list is a five-foot pressurized tunnel which tested wing designs still referenced today.
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics established NASA's Langley Research Center in 1917, just 14 years after the Wright Brothers made their first flight on North Carolina's Outer Banks. For the first half of the center's existence, through two World Wars, the focus was on aviation research. That changed in 1958 when NACA became NASA.
America's space program began at Langley with development of Project Mercury and training of its astronauts. Gemini astronauts went on to practice rendezvous and docking techniques in a simulator suspended from the ceiling of the bomber-sized flight research hanger. Apollo astronauts practiced landing on a simulated moon surface at Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility. Visitors had the opportunity last weekend to visit each of these facilities. All these facilities still exist and are on the national historic landmarks list as well.
Langley contributed over 60,000 hours of wind tunnel testing to the space shuttle program and also saw the certifications on the tile system used to protect the vehicle during reentry and produced the modified delta wing design ultimately used.
Most recently, the center played a role in the recent successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Unlike previous landings on Mars which entered ballistically, MSL had to steer through the atmosphere. The center's aeronautics experience was called upon to get the rover from the top of Mars' atmosphere down to the surface safely and on target.
Spectacular video of the heat shield falling away and landing on the surface of Mars was captured by the Langley designed MEDLI instrument. The spectacular Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) might not have gone so successfully without the simulations, both computer-based and scale models in the center's wind tunnels. That successful landing was announced as "Tango Delta" (touchdown) by Jody Davis, an EDL simulation engineer from Langley from the "war room" adjacent to the control center at JPL.
Saturday's open house culminated with a drop test of a full-sized Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle before a crowd of nearly 10,000. The capsule is being developed for a crew of four to explore an asteroid and ultimately travel on to Mars. The 18,000-pound capsule was tilted 45 degrees then dropped vertically. The test simulated a water landing of the capsule in the event of parachute failure. Data from sensors on board the capsule along with the numerous high speed cameras will be used by researchers to refine similar computer simulations.
If you missed the open house, you can still visit LRC's visitor center housed in the nearby Virginia Air and Space Museum. The museum features historic air and spacecraft, artifacts and lots of hands-on exhibits. Teachers, don't miss the Educator Resource Center at the museum for NASA publications and videos as well as training workshops, all free of charge.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.