Although in most people’s minds NASA is synonymous with space, it also has “aeronautics” in its name. In fact the agency’s mission is remarkably wide. Manned and autonomous space exploration, earth sciences, and helping model commercial airspace are just a few of the domains in which NASA operates.
Underpinning nearly NASA every activity, you’ll find research. For more, Federal News Network spoke with just two of NASA’s leading researchers, both from its renowned Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Dr. Jay Bookbinder is Ames’s associate director for Research and Technology; and Dr. Parimal Kopardekar is the director of the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute, or NARI.
“Ames actually has many core competencies,” Bookbinder said. “We deal with astrobiology, space physics, astrophysics, aeronautics, and exploration Technologies. We are one of the centers that does basic research in a lot of different areas.”
Down near earth – where there’s an atmosphere – aeronautics research has many branches of its own, Kopardekar said. “So basically propulsion, reducing drag, making things go faster in air, which is supersonic and hypersonic, and doing advanced materials work that will make things efficient,” he said. Aeronautics work extends to airspace operations, where everything from commercial jetliners to small drones must co-exist safely.
Both scientists say the NASA Ames research agenda is highly future focused, but gets down to the practical. And the work tends to involve interagency cooperation.
In the space domain, for example, NASA and the Defense Department collaborate on the so-called cislunar zone, the space between the earth and the moon. It’s where DOD wants highly available, survivable satellites to be located, and for which NSAS is developing technologies, Bookbinder said. He said NASA also works with agencies as diverse as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey.
And of course, NASA’s unique missions come with their own ongoing research requirements. In particular, Bookbinder said, the mission to Mars with astronauts is sparking research into a variety of topics connected to sustainment, including new radiation effects such as from galactic cosmic rays or solar flares.
“And that’s just getting to Mars,” Bookbinder said. “And then, once you’re at Mars, there are whole issues of survivability of the mechanisms, the equipment and the people.” These extend into growing food, extracting materials, manufacturing in space or on Mars.
In the aerospace domain, Kopardekar said, a potential revival of faster-than-sound flight is sparking new looks at propulsion means, airplane shape to reduce or eliminate sonic booms, and whether the whole thing has a chance at commercial viability.
Research activities at Ames are supported by equipment and infrastructure that is second-to-none. For example, it houses the world’s largest wind tunnel – big enough, Kopardekar said, to test structures as large as a 747. There’s also a 7-story vertical motion simulator. Ames’s Future Flight Center, he said, can simulate a large municipal airport in a configurable way to test scheduling algorithms or the integration of surface and airborne movement, with variable weather conditions overlayed.
“We also have a wind tunnel which is specially designed for Mars atmosphere,” Bookbinder added. “It simulates the Martian environment. You can test aircraft and rotorcraft like helicopters and their blades and such in this Mars wind tunnel. That’s a nice little unique capability.”