An unlikely location plays a big role in NASA operations

I spoke with Dr. James Kenyon, Center Director, Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

For my second interview with a NASA center director, we got a visit from Dr. James Kenyon. He’s the Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland Ohio. He was nice enough to come by our studios while he was in D.C. for a headquarters visit. Now the Midwest may not be the first place you think of when it comes to NASA operations but I assure you, Dr. Kenyon told us all about how Glenn plays such a pivotal role for the agency.

Interview Transcript:

Eric White All right, so why don’t we start out just by kind of giving me an overview of the Glenn Research Center? I know you’ve only been there a year or so, but a lot of people probably don’t think of NASA being in in Ohio, but they are. And what does the footprint look like and what kind of work do you all do there?

James Kenyon Sure. So Glenn was actually established in Ohio way back as part of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. Now, the NACA stood up in 1915 to really help us understand with the birth of flight, solving those problems and addressing those and getting government support to try to build that largely starting with World War I, then World War II, but also the commercial industry. And the NASA Glenn Center. Of course, it was the NACA Aero Engine research lab at the time, was placed there to really look at aircraft engine technology, how we could advance that technology in World War II. Groundbreaking at Glenn took place in 1941. So it’s really part of the World War II buildup. How are we going to make sure that our aircraft over the skies in Europe and in the Pacific have that capability, have that ability to dominate and win those wars? And so a lot of research there, a couple of reasons why place it there. One is back then, aircraft engines were piston engines. They looked a lot like car engines. And of course, the automotive industry was was growing there in the Midwest. We’re not that far from Detroit. We’ve got a huge manufacturing sector steel producing everything, all the things you need to make cars and car engines. So that’s one reason. Another reason is the world famous Cleveland Air races. Those happened at an airport right there that is now the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. And Glenn is right there adjacent to that airport. So that that’s the reason why to place it there. As our specialties grow out of that under NACA, we did aircraft engines and then with the dawn of the jet age, we transitioned to jet engines. And then when NASA was formed in 1958, we of course kept doing propulsion engines for spacecraft. And so now today what we do is we work on aircraft engines. We still have the aircraft engine part of NASA’s portfolio in aviation. We do in-space propulsion, which is thrusters for spacecraft, if you will. We do power and we do power for both spacecraft, for aircraft and future concepts, such as if we’re going to go and establish a presence that has people or robotic things on the surface of the moon, they’re going to need power. And so looking at surface power concepts for the moon and Mars and beyond, but all that, and then we do communications technologies we work closely with with Goddard on communications technology, we do a lot of the technology development. They operate a lot of our systems in space. And so there’s a there’s a coupling there. And then we do a lot of work in what we call extreme environments. And some of that is borne out of our work in propulsion and power that requires materials that can operate at extremely high temperatures. But then if you kind of look at the adjacencies to that extremely low temperatures dealing with cryogenic fluids, because our propulsion systems need things like hydrogen and other cryogenic really cold things. As well as rough surfaces. We do tires and materials for for rovers and even microgravity. We have a huge microgravity drop tower that gives us more than 5 seconds in ground testing, but more than 5 seconds of a microgravity environment so that we can look at things like how do flames behave when there’s no gravity? And so that’s the kind of work we do at NASA’s Glenn. And it’s exciting because you’re right, it’s not some place that you would think of is not a Kennedy Space Center where you see the launches going out of. But but we develop a lot of the research and technology. We’re what’s known as a research center. So that’s a role research in technology. But with the kinds of work we do with propulsion and power and communications, we’re in the middle of everything. I tell our our folks there, and I’ll tell anybody who will listen. No aircraft and no spacecraft has ever flown without propulsion, power and communications. And until we invent some new paradigm in physics, no spacecraft or aircraft will ever fly without propulsion, power and communications. And so we get to be part of everything that NASA does. It’s exciting.

Eric White Keeping up with the car theme, it seems as if the way you’re describing it, Kennedy is the test track, but you guys are the the factory that’s putting together these things. Is that kind of how you all see yourselves as your role in NASA’s missions?

James Kenyon In many ways, it works that way. There are multiple centers around the nation there. There are actually nine NASA centers, as well as an FFRDC, a federally funded research and development center. Each has a unique role, but there are several of us who are working in the research and technology work of different areas. We’re doing the propulsion in the power and the communications in the extreme environments. And then we’ve got we’ve got others who are working on things like aerodynamics or systems and controls and things like that. And so there’s a lot of different things that go on at the at the different centers. Some centers do the reentry systems, the ablative materials for the spacecraft as they reenter the atmosphere here or on the surface of Mars or things like that. And so a lot of different work. But you’re exactly right. We’re developing those technologies that are going to go into those those future spacecraft and aircraft.

Eric White Now, before we started talking, you did describe it as your big hole in the ground. What does that mean? Tell me what the meaning of that.

James Kenyon So so we have a microgravity. We have a microgravity test.

Eric White So that’s that. Okay. It’s that microgravity test.

James Kenyon And it turns out and I’m not I’m not an expert in this area, but our experts tell me that basically when you’re up in an orbit, you’re you’re basically we call it microgravity, but you’re in freefall. When you’re orbiting the Earth, you’re microgravity is effectively what you’re doing in freefall. And so we have a 500 foot chamber that goes into the ground below NASA Glenn, And we can pump it down to a vacuum. We can evacuate to take all the air out of it. And and then we can drop things. And when we do that, it gives us about 5 seconds of a stable microgravity environment without the influence of drag or air where we can test things in a real space environment.

Eric White And do people go into that or? Yeah. So great. So let’s there are so many other projects that you all are working on there. And I’m curious you’ve got that propulsion part of the center research. What aspect of on earth activities are are you all still involved with as far as commercial air travel and things of that nature?

James Kenyon We are very heavily involved in NASA’s efforts in sustainable aviation. There’s a there’s a larger goal. Of course, the whole world is working toward sustainability across all of those sectors, and transportation being a big part of that and aviation being part of that. And so in the U.S., we have this U.S. Aviation climate action plan that looks at and has a fairly challenging goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And that’s a big driver for whatever our future regulatory environment is going to be. And by the way, the Europeans are looking at similar things and we have to be able to work in in whatever regulatory environment there is there. Our manufacturers have to be able to sell products and operate products there. Our airlines have to be able to operate there. But that’s going to drive a regulatory environment, that’s going to drive business environment. And there’s also a business imperative there because if you can reduce your energy consumption, you can reduce your operating costs. And so it’s a it’s a it’s a way where we can work hand-in-hand with industry interests. But what we’re doing there, if you want to get to that goal, you have to think about energy. And when you think about propulsion and you think about power, that’s energy conversion. And so so looking at your different kinds of energy, your different sources of energy. And so a couple of things we’re doing. We’re working on advanced jet engine technology. We’ve made tremendous strides in making jet engines a lot more efficient, but there’s still a long way to go before we get those things to where they’re at their best. So we’re working on projects to just dramatically improve jet engine efficiency. If you can reduce the energy burn, you help yourself in a whole lot of ways. Another thing we work on there is looking at alternative forms of energy. And specifically a big focus is on hybrid electric and electric propulsion. Instead of relying on petroleum fuels, using electrification as a way to either better optimize my my system and make it more efficient or just to use a different form of energy that that has a path to sustainability. And then a third, a third role we play, which is kind of more of a supporting role in the larger whole of government effort, is sustainable aviation fuels. Right now there are seven different paths to get sustainable fuels that are certified for use in aircraft. Our challenges, we can’t get enough. And so looking at ways to to support that. So the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy really have the lead to go and look at developing new pathways. But if they develop new pathways, they got to work in jet engines. And so we provide a test capability to be able to test those and make sure that they work as well as technology development capability to make sure that we’ve got engine technology that can work with different kinds of fuels. And so a couple of different ways that we’re supporting that. We’re also, though, looking at new forms of transportation, opening new markets, if you will, later on this year. We’re hoping to fly our X-59 quiet supersonic aircraft. Glenn has been supporting the propulsion integration part of that. But as soon as we figure out the point of the X-59 is to show that we can fly faster than the speed of sound, but not produce a really loud sonic boom. And so maybe we can open new market where instead of saying don’t fly any faster than Mach one speed of sound, we can say, I don’t care  how fast you fly, just don’t go be any louder than this. Right. That’s a game changer and will allow us to open that new market. Just imagine getting from L.A. back to D.C. or L.A. to Cleveland, and in a couple of hours, you can have that meeting all day and still get home that night. Pretty cool. And and but then once you figure that out, now you got to start solving the other problems, like the jet noise landing and takeoff noise. And we’ve already got some teams working on that problem. We’re also looking at advanced air mobility. This is that’s kind of the vision is this urban air taxi. You know, I can I can skip over the 14th Street Bridge and get straight from Reagan National or straight from Crystal City downtown with this little thing that looks like a taxi, except it’s got four or six or eight rotors on top and we just fly over. But there are a lot of other applications like like remote medical care, remote package delivery that that really opens up, flight to more people. And that’s going to have electric propulsion. A lot of the concepts have electric propulsion as we’re testing the propulsion concepts to understand their durability, the reliability which which feeds into making sure that they’re safe enough to carry people on. So a lot of work impacting a lot of different ways we do we do business in in aviation.

Eric White Appreciate all the local references. You can take the man out of DC and DC of the man. That’s James Kenyon, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Time for another quick break, but we’ll have more from Dr. Kenyon after it’s done. This is the space our on Federal News Network. I’m Eric Weiner. You’re listening to the Space Hour on Federal News Network. I’m Eric White. Now for part two of my interview with James Kenyan, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. So with all of those different projects that you all are working on for, you can call them ground transportation, I guess, just because it’s on Earth. How does that translates into NASA’s overall missions of getting to the moon, getting to Mars? I imagine that there’s some technology crossover there where having a more sustainable propulsion system, NASA could utilize that in some way, right?

James Kenyon Well the first thing before you get to space, you got to fly through the atmosphere. And that’s one thing that NASA’s has been able to leverage for a very long time, which has been exciting. But but when you start thinking about things like the electrification of aircraft propulsion, when you look at things like the spacecraft thrusters, those are largely electric. The so-called hall effect or the ion thrusters are electric. And so how do you generate electric power? So generating that electric power is a challenge, but then translating it and using that then to turn into a propulsion system that can drive a spacecraft, orient a spacecraft. The good news is up there, it doesn’t take a whole lot of thrust, but it’s still a challenge because these electric thrusters don’t necessarily produce a lot of thrust. But but it’s a good way to get there because it’s very, very efficient. Then when you get to the surface or you get out there, you have to have you have to have power. And so we’ve worked on technologies such as roll out solar arrays. These are arrays that you can roll up so you can make them very nice and compact for launch. But then when you get out to space, they roll out and we just the agency just deployed some on the space station in the in the last month or so. But looking at technologies like that as well as things like working with the Department of Energy, nuclear power could be a really good option for space travel and and for producing power on the surface of the moon and places like that. And so so making sure we understand and leverage those technologies. And that’s the kind of work we’re doing at Glenn in terms of power and propulsion for spacecraft.

Eric White And what can you tell me about the communications aspect of your all work? Because over at Goddard, I was shown a very cool thing about instead of radio waves switching it all to lasers and pointing and shooting, being able to get your comms up and running in a more efficient way. So efficiency doesn’t stop at fuel consumption there. What can you tell me about what you all are doing for that?

James Kenyon That’s right. Well, we’re working on the technologies we’re working on on how to make sure that the signals, the lasers have the right power, have the right density, that we know how to receive them, that we know how to control them and point them correctly. Those are the kind of technologies you have to work on to understand. Call it optical communications. Right. But is that is that light the laser that that you’re using to do that? So we’re doing the technology development to make sure that we’ve got the right control technologies, we’ve got the right receivers, technologies, that the things are transmitting and communicating the way they’re supposed to, and that we’re able to get the signals in and use them. And so that’s that’s the kind of work that we do at Glenn in terms of developing those foundational technologies that go into that. One of the cool things with that is that it works. We can use that. Of course, that’s great for Space Optical can be a little bit tougher here on Earth, but we also have terrestrial applications for those sorts of technologies too. And so looking at how we can leverage it across both air and space is something that we’re excited about.

Eric White All right. So let’s talk about the non-NASA folks who help out in this. Every NASA’s center has increased exponentially its relationship with contractors in the use of their technology and their talent, bringing them in to help with all of these great, amazing things that you all are doing. Is that the case out in Glenn Research Center as well?

James Kenyon Well, certainly, certainly it’s not really terribly new to us. And I’ll I’ll go back to aviation for a moment. Right. We’ve we have a very mature aviation aviation industry. And and so we’ve been working in partnership with or with aircraft engine manufacturers for a long time, finding those areas where the entire industry has a problem that they can’t solve and maybe NASA can help or looking at those things where where if we want to drive the industry in a direction such as reducing fuel burn or finding alternative energy sources and things like that, we can invest in those areas that encourage industry to take a little bit more risks, lean forward, go a little bit faster. And so we’ve got a long relationship with the aviation industry that way. But looking at how we work with commercial partners in a very similar way on the space side, for example, we’re working on one of the programs we’re leading at NASA Glenn, is the power and propulsion element for the gateway. When you look at our Moon to Mars mission and happy to share as much as you want to know about Moon to Mars. But but, but when you look at our Moon to Mars mission, one of the key elements is placing a basically a space station around the moon. And we call it the gateway. It’s the gateway to the moon was going to need power. It’s going to need propulsion. I need communications. And so we’re working on what we call the power and propulsion element, which will provide that sustainable power, provides propulsion that allows it to do station keeping and be where we want it to be in the orbit around the moon. And so we’re working with companies. The prime contractor on that is Maxar based out in Mountain View, California, but they also work with companies around as part of their supply chain. But we work with the companies as as partners. Where we lean in, we invest in where the risk is. We leverage some of their commercial technologies. Maxar is a commercial space company, and so we’re leveraging a lot of their commercial technology that helps us reduce our cost, helps us reduce our risk by using proven technology, but also allows us to invest in a way so that they’ll take it in a direction that they wouldn’t normally use for their commercial practices. And so it allows us both to bring the best of what we have to the table.

Eric White All right, twist my arm. We can talk about Moon to Mars details. Tell us a give us an overview of what that project is. And I imagine it involves going from the moon to Mars. But you go. Am I barking up the wrong tree there? Exactly.

James Kenyon Well, so we’ve we’ve set out really, And to say that we’ve just started would would would be a little misguided. But but we’ve just laid out a vision, the the vision for going back to the moon, establishing a sustainable presence at the moon, and then using that as a stepping stone to then go on to Mars and do the exploration of our solar system. And so we get asked sometimes, well, what’s different now? We went to the moon back in the Apollo days. What’s different now? The difference is we’re staying. And it’s going to be a combination of a human presence as well as a robotic presence. But this this moon to Mars activity is looking at getting us back to the moon, getting us back to the moon that allows us to stay for extended periods. When we went to Apollo, we would land on the sunny side of the moon. We would do however much you could get done in the short time they had and come back. But it even that short time just completely transformed our understanding of our solar system, our understanding of the origins of our planet and our understanding of our universe. Imagine what you could do if you could stay and actually get down in there and dig in and understand so much more. But then by doing that, you’re in space longer, further away from the earth. You learn about how to operate and live further away from the Earth, which gives you a better capability to go on toward Mars and then from Mars on out further into the out into the solar system. And then also establishing a presence is going to potentially open up pathways for industry to create new markets there, whether it’s exploiting some of the resources on the moon that we could use here. Space tourism, I know, is one thing that’s kind of far out there. But but I never say never any more. But a lot of things you can do if you start thinking about about ways you can live and work on the moon. And so that’s what that vision is. We launched Artemis one last fall, which was the first step, is the first time we’ve had a human rate of spacecraft back in the vicinity of the moon in 50 years. We learned a lot from that. It was incredibly successful. We learned a lot. And and our next launch coming up is going to be sending astronauts to the vicinity of the moon. They’re going to orbit the moon and go around the moon. And that’ll be the first time since Apollo. And then and then eventually we’re going to put people back. The people back on the surface of the moon. The first woman, the first person of color, the first Americans, the first people back on the moon since Apollo. And that’s exciting. We are going to have the gateway, the orbiting space station, which is going to give us the ability to stage logistics, stage people, to get to stage it, to come back to Earth. So a whole lot of things you can do with that capability as well. So this vision is really out there and we’ve got commercial partners  putting robotic payloads on the surface within the next year is just a whole bunch of stuff going on that’s going to get us that sustainable presence.

Eric White Listeners of this program know that my my favorite thing to dream about is HD cameras on the moon. You know, no more fuzzy, grainy stuff. I want to see clear images and just being able to see all that will be really cool. So yeah, I mean that all just sounds fantastic and you know, the way that you all are working towards that what are you just kind of what step are we in right now and where are you all working or what are you all working on, I guess, in the program to get us to those great things that you just described me?

James Kenyon Well, like I said, we we just launched Artemis one last fall. That was a huge, huge first step. That’s sort of the existence proof that says, yes, we can get back there with something that’s meaningful. And NASA Glenn played a big role in that. Canada, for those who may not be familiar we have the big rocket, which we call the space launch system that carried it up. But what it carried up was a spacecraft called Orion, and that spacecraft is human rated. And as it was going around the moon. And that’s the thing that got the cool pictures back from the moon. Of course, it needed power and it need needed propulsion and it needed all the utilities so that people could use it in work and it could go in the path that we wanted it to go. That is called a service module, which attaches to the spacecraft as kind of a segment that attaches to the spacecraft and powers it and carries it around. That was built actually by international partners. The European Space Agency led that. But our integration office to put that on the spacecraft is at NASA Glenn. So making sure the requirements flow is clear. Doing the verification and validation and then being on site to work with the Europeans for troubleshooting and just for the operations part of it. So we were right there in the Artemis One launch, and we’ll be there for all of the Artemis launches coming up. We’re doing the power and propulsion element for the gateway. And so that’s a that’s a big deal. Having an orbiting having a space station is a big deal. Having one around the moon is just pretty incredible if you think about it. And so doing the power and the propulsion for that and the communications that are going to enable all of that. And then that longer term vision, having people sustainably on the surface, having the power sources there as we’re starting research and technology development now that’s going to allow us to have the ability to have that power and that footprint and that infrastructure in place. The agency laid out 63 objectives in four different areas science, transportation and habitation, infrastructure and operations. And with the kind of work we do, Glenn is very much involved in all areas, but especially that infrastructure part because of that, that communications and that power infrastructure. And so a lot of work going on headed in that direction.

Eric White All right. And I just want to I do want to talk about you and your background a little bit. You’ve had a lot of experience in government. You worked in the defense side of things and in many different aspects, we know coming from the technology side. What can you tell me about your first year and making the transition from a defense agency to a science and exploratory agency?

James Kenyon Well, so so I’ve been actually with NASA for four years, but I started here at headquarters in Washington, D.C. And and but I’ve been out at NASA, Glenn, now for about a year. And I will tell you that the transition from from being in the policy shop, if you will, the policy and program and budgets and everything you do in Washington to being out in the field, the biggest thing that strikes you is the people. I am humbled every day to drive into the gate and be among 3200 of the smartest people in the world. And here I am, the center director. And I just it’s amazing and humbling to see the incredible work they’re doing. But even more amazing is their passion and excitement for the work. You can feel it when you walk on the campus or when you drive on the campus. And it’s it’s just a great feeling. They also know their place in their history and it’s a proud history. And so feeling and being a part of that history now has just been an absolutely incredible experience. I’ll tell you that you appreciate the challenges a lot more. I’ve got my my my cell phone will text me every time we get a water leak or a fire alarm or something that happens. And and you’re dealing with an old infrastructure. Much of the center was built in the Cold War buildup. And and so a lot of this stuff is getting old and still amazing the capability it has has but but some of these little subsystems but but you understand the challenges of of operating a large center. We have two campuses our main campus is right next to the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Got about 300 acres, about 100 buildings. And most of our workforce is there, over 3000 people there. We have a second facility about an hour west. It’s about 6500, 6600 acres near Sandusky, Ohio. And and there we have a smaller footprint in terms of people and buildings. But what we do there is very large space environments testing. We can test full scale spacecraft in the space environment, take it down to a vacuum, radiation vibrations, you name it. We can do all of that. And so that capability and again, just the people and their passion and their knowledge of how to use all of this stuff to really make the magic happen and literally rewrite the laws of physics every day. It’s just a cool place to be.

Eric White And not as many suits and ties.

James Kenyon No, definitely not as many suits and ties.

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