Another #NASAtweetup: NASA Langley!

Well, I sure didn’t expect to get into another NASAtweetup so soon after a launch tweetup, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to not try if there was any chance I could make it, and what do ya know? I got another of those lovely emails with “CONFIRMATION” in the subject line!

I wasn’t familiar with Langley Research Center before this (and was momentarily slightly disappointed to discover it had nothing to do with the CIA 😛 ) but this was remedied promptly upon NASA Langley Director of Research Charles Harris arrival, as Charlie Harris, Langley’s Director of Research, welcomed us with an overview of the center.

A few tidbits he shared:

  • Langley Research Center (LaRC) was one of the first to aeronautics research centers! It predates NASA itself by more than 40 years, having been established by NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in 1917.
  • Viking (first Mars lander) was a Langley project
  • The technology to safely land the Mars Science Lab Curiosity rover was developed at LaRC and they’re now researching to how to land humans on Mars (requires 100 times the mass we’ve ever landed on Mars before)
  • Collaborating with Sierra Nevada on developing a new shuttle-esque commercial launch vehicle to service ISS
  • Langley researchers were the first to identify the hole in the ozone layer!
  • Now looking into radiation with CERES

Once we were thoroughly welcomed and impressed, we loaded up the bus and went to the hangar, where we paused for the now traditional group photo before splitting into two groups. My group started with atmospheric researcher Mike Obland to learn about Airborne Science at Langley. My initial mental picture of a mad scientist titrating something in the back of a Cessna and dropping things out the window aside, it’s pretty cool. They outfit these little planes with a bunch of scientific instruments, and fly around collecting data, which they use to study smog, weather, climate change, forest fires, etc!

Spacetweeps, intrigued.

Bruce Fisher giving the tweeps the Flight Services Overview

Ceiling crane for practicing docking proceduresThen the groups switched, and mine went over to engineer Bruce Fisher for the Flight Services overview. He told us more about the aircraft in the hangar, as well as the hangar itself. He pointed out this weird orange crane on tracks on the ceiling – and what it was used for, it turns out, was to practice docking procedures, before there were computer simulators! They’d actually hoist up two mock-up modules/capsules, and the astronauts who would have to maneuver them into position for real in space, later on, would practice docking suspended in mid-air in this very hangar! Before Houston became took over that end of things, all the early astros trained at Langley!

After the hangar, we headed over to the Reid Conference Center, where we had lunch and heard from Astronaut Susan (Still) Kilrain all about living and working in space! She flew on STS-83 and STS-94, which were actually the same mission with the same crew, but had a fuel cell problem the first time around, so the mission got cut short (4 days). But the mission was deemed “too important not to do” so they turned it around and re-launched 90 days later!

Astronaut Susan (Still) Kilrain

Astronaut Susan (Still) Kilrain

  • “There is a restroom all the way up the elevator before you get into the shuttle. They have determined that it is impossible for a female to use that restroom, and I have so proven them wrong. …a Navy pilot can pee just about anywhere.”
  • They test you for claustrophobia by sticking you inside a beachball sort of thing, turning all the lights out, and leaving you there without telling you for how long. (She fell asleep.)
  • They flew a stationary bike (with a seatbelt) for exercise… so one day she biked around the world! It took an hour and a half.
  • Her job when not flying as as CapComm. Apparently the only people allowed to talk to an astronaut in space is another astronaut or the Flight Surgeon, so that was her when someone else was in space! Astronauts do get to call their family twice while their in space, and email, but everything is monitored (to make sure they don’t get too stressed or upset). If your family writes to you while you’re in space and says you’re dog died, they won’t tell you until you get back.

STS-83/94 crew photo

Myself with Susan Kilrain

After her presentation and some questions from the tweeps, we got to take pictures with her and get her autograph! Then we were off again, and split back into two groups for the next tours.

My new group started in the U.S National Transonic Facility Pressurized Air/Cryogenic Wind Tunnel… which basically means they can adjust the pressure and temperature of the air running through the wind tunnel, so the molecules are closer together in proportion to scaled-down models, for more accurate results! (I think I understood that, anyway!) We got to see the shop in which they make the models to test, the wind tunnel itself (from the outside), and the control room.

A testing model of the space shuttle!

An airliner testing model

Wind tunnel control room

Part of the wind tunnel

The facility manager, Roman Paryz, showed us around, and also gave us a little cryogenics demonstration with a bucket of liquid nitrogen! He dipped a partially-inflated balloon (which appeared to deflate as the air inside cooled and compressed, then “re-inflated” as it warmed back up), a leaf (which got very brittle and snapped into pieces), and a cupful of Cheez-Itz (which were delightfully cold and still tasty)! Pouring liquid nitrogen out on the floor was really cool too – like tiny fog, it formed a roiling layer of cloud about 6 inches deep, skimming over the floor!

Frozen leaf is fragile.

Pouring some liquid nitrogen on the ground to show us how it sort of skitters across the floor, not seeming to touch it!

Then he asked if we had any questions, or anything else we wanted to see frozen. I thought about what might be interesting to dip in liquid nitrogen… and remembered I had a pair of clean (brand new) socks serving as camera lens cases in my bag, so I pulled one out and offered it up! I was slightly surprised, and everyone was amused when he actually accepted, and dunked it! I had kind of hoped it would make like the leaf and shatter so I’d have little sock fragments to share, but apparently acrylic knits don’t react so entertainingly… just got kind of frosty!

[Very] Frozen sock!

Roman Paryz and my frozen sock and I

Next, we walked over to Structures and Materials lab, where we learned about some (*gasp!*) structures and materials they’re working on there! One was the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3), which will allow us to land bigger, heavier payloads on planets with an atmosphere (such as Mars), by using an inflatable heat shield (a wide cone of concentric inflatable rings, with a thermal protection system wrapped around it)! Normal, rigid heat shields, can only be as big as the launch vehicle is wide, thus limiting the amount of mass it can safely land. But a heat shield that can fly packed in and deploy when it’s time for reentry can be much larger, with more surface area for air resistance and heat distribution, so we can send more stuff!

Mary Beth Wusk and Amanda Cutright explaining the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE 3)

Dr. Mia Siochi

Lucky for us, Dr. Mia Siochi didnt realize that her demonstration wasn’t actually intended for us (apparently there was a group of bigwigs coming through after us), so we got to hear about some really fascinating emergent materials, which NASA is trying to accelerate the development of. Different ways of constructing metal parts, carbon nanotubes (forming a material 20 times stronger than carbon fiber materials, and still lighter), self-healing materials (they took it to the gun range to test how it’d heal around bullets!), and engineered surfaces (minimizing friction to improve aerodynamics… or super RainEx)… seriously cool stuff to a nerd like me!

Then we got to go in a model lunar habitat! It’s inflatable too, so it could be bigger than the launch vehicle would otherwise allow, and on the moon or anywhere without an atmosphere, normal air pressure on the inside would hold it in place! A bunch of those connected together on the moon would make a pretty sweet place to live!

The Inflatable Lunar Habitat's airlock

Exiting the Inflatable Lunar Habitat

Inflatable Lunar Habitat

The last stop on our Langley tour was the Landing Impact Research/Hydro Impact Basin Facility, to see a test drop of the Orion capsule! The structure is called the gantry, and I guess it’s basically a stationary crane (though it looks more like a giant swingset), which they use to lift up air/space craft and then drop them, to see how they hold up when falling/landing/crashing at various speeds/angles/rotations/etc. It’s where Neil Armstrong learned to land on the moon! (A real-life simulator, like the docking crane in the hangar.) Since then, however, they dug the Hydro Impact Basin, to test water landings.

For this test (the third), an engineering model of Orion was suspended from the gantry tilted slightly forward (leading with its side, rather than full on the heat shield), and pulled back so it would swing down to the basin, going 22mph horizontally when it was released from its bracket.

Landing Impact Research/Hydro Impact Basin Facility's enormous gantry

Orion model being pulled back in preparation for the drop test

Orion model full of sensors to measure the drop and impact

Orion Drop Test - Swinging

Orion Drop Test - Swinging

Orion Drop Test - Swinging

We watched as they drew it back and up, then let it swing, released from the bracket over the water, and then a huge splash!

Orion Drop Test - Released!

Orion Drop Test - Splashdown!

Orion Drop Test - Splash

It seemed to strike the water pretty much level, and even tipped back a little, but its forward momentum was great enough that as it bobbed in the water, it also plowed through it and gradually tipped forward, rolling over/through the crash barrier, and eventually settling into “Stable 2” – NASA-speak for upside-down!

Orion Drop Test - Flipping

Orion Drop Test - Flipped

Orion Drop Test - Getting ready to flip her back upside-up

Orion Drop Test - Flipping her back upside-up. With a crane.

We watched as the tidal wave of displaced water approached and receded, and a dude in a little raft paddled out and rigged some sort of loop around the capsule, which a little crane then used to flip Orion back upside-up. We hung out there a while, and eventually hopped back on the bus and returned to the little cafeteria where we had started the day to wrap things up.


One of our lovely hosts, Kathy Barnstorff, being interviewed!

But turns out, the wrap-up didn’t have to be the end! It was the end of the official tweetup, but Langley Research Center has its own little actual bar called Afterburners, and our lovely tweetup hosts and another NASA guy invited any tweeps who could/wanted to stay a little longer to join them there for “unofficial debriefing” over drinks and snacks! Of course, I wasn’t about to turn that down, (and they even said my Dad could join us if he wanted, so I called him and he did) and a small herd of spacetweeps and NASA employees and a bonus Daddy got to sit around chatting for a bit, complete with free beer!

NASA sure does know how to show a geek a good time! <3

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