In the western Mojave Desert of California, NASA evaluates cutting-edge aircraft and aeronautical developments, along with the atmospheric flight characteristics of future space vehicles, in relentless pursuit of aerospace technology breakthroughs at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. NASA’s earth science aircraft call Dryden their home, that is, when they are not ranging the globe in pursuit of environmental data to expand the body of knowledge about the evolving Earth. Located at Edwards, California, Dryden’s charter is to research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics, space, and related technologies. Dryden also supports the Space Shuttle program as a back-up landing site and as the facility for testing and validating design concepts and systems used in the orbiters.
Co-located with Edwards Air Force Base at the edge of vast Rogers Dry Lake, Dryden’s legacy reaches back to its role in developing the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, the X-1. Dryden has a long, storied history in aeronautics research and testing. Today, Dryden works to expand the envelope in aeronautics with projects including the ongoing X-Planes, Revolutionary Concepts (RevCon), Environmental Research and Sensor Technology (ERAST), and Airborne Science. Vast test ranges over the desert and the presence of the huge omnidirectional landing field provided by Rogers Dry Lake, coupled with a flying schedule that can count on 345 days of good weather a year, make Dryden the ideal site for this exciting work.
The Hyper-X program is a joint project between Dryden and Langley Research Center to develop an unpiloted research aircraft, the X-43A, which can fly up to 10 times the speed of sound. The first of three X-43As is expected to reach Mach 7 this year. The current series of X-Planes includes the X-33, X-34, X-37, X-38, X-43, and X-45. The X-38 project is providing technology for an emergency crew return vehicle, or “lifeboat,” for crews aboard the International Space Station. The X-38 is poised to become the first new human spacecraft design in two decades. It is an economical concept, building upon atmospheric lifting body technol- ogy proven in the X-24A program in the 1960s.
The X-38 prototype vehicle No. 132 completed its longest, highest, and fastest test flight in March 2000 when it was released from a B-52
carrier aircraft at 39,000 feet over
Dryden. Simulating re-entry from
space, the X-38 was slowed from 500 miles an hour to 70 miles an hour by a 60-foot parachute. A 5,500- square foot parafoil, using a new design, then performed a phased unreefing, or opening, that culmi- nated in a smooth touchdown squarely on the targeted landing spot on Rogers Dry Lake. This milestone mission also gave engineers their first test of the X-38’s automatic flight control software, which performed flawlessly.
Most of the new X-Planes are part of NASA’s goal to develop reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) for low- earth orbits at a reduced cost per payload pound. Dryden is testing these vehicles to collect data and evaluate their characteristics and capabilities, especially during the atmospheric portions of their flights.
The RevCon program seeks to accelerate the development of revolutionary aeronautical concepts. RevCon, a program of the NASA Office of Aerospace Technology, with input from the Langley, Ames, and Glenn research centers, will prove its various revolutionary concepts in the skies over Dryden. To give the RevCon adventure a running start, three projects were identified for first emphasis. These Quick Start projects include:
• Autonomous Formation Flight (AFF): A quest to fly aircraft in close formation, using autonomous flight control to maintain precise positions that may result in significant fuel savings for the aircraft following the leader by taking advantage of wake conditions conducive to fuel economy.
• Blended Wing Body-Low-Speed Vehicle (BWB-LSV): This scaled version of a possible future transport aircraft will explore technologies intended to permit new efficiencies and carrying capacities by using a design that blends the wing and fuselage of the aircraft.
• Pulse Detonation Engine (PDE): Increased efficiency and fewer moving parts are benefits expected from this radical engine technology. The program at Dryden is intended to demonstrate PDE performance in actual flight conditions, and to establish opportunities for its application.
Nine additional RevCon projects have entered the systems analysis and feasibility study phase. Preliminary evaluation of the nine projects will be completed in May 2001. From these nine, some may be selected for further development.
Another aeronautics goal of NASA is to develop the technology for a family of remotely or autonomously operated uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs). UAVs can be effective for long-duration earth science and environmental missions at high altitudes. Aircraft developed under the project have achieved an unofficial altitude record of 60,200 feet for single-engine, propeller-driven craft, as well as a world record for both propeller-driven and solar-powered aircraft of 80,201 feet.
Two goals have been set for the solar-powered Helios Prototype aircraft, one of several ERAST designs. The Helios Prototype is scheduled to reach 100,000 feet in 2001 and remain aloft for four days by 2003. The key to meeting the endurance goal is development of an energy storage system using a regenerative fuel cell that would allow an aircraft like Helios to fly for up to six months at a time. This developing fuel cell technol- ogy could have wide applications.
Dryden is also the operations base for the Airborne Science program for NASA researchers, as well as other government agencies, the academic community, and private industry. Three planes are used for this research: two ER-2 variants of the U-2 and a DC-8 jet transport. The ER-2s carry high altitude experiments, while the DC-8 flying laboratory is used for sensor develop-
ment, satellite sensor verification, and basic research about the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.
Dryden Flight Research Center has grown substantially since its beginnings in 1946 as a group of five engineers. As it has grown so has its mission, while never straying from the core focus on aeronautics and flight. As NASA moves forward with a new generation of flight vehicles, Dryden will play a crucial role in developing new ideas for air travel and testing those ideas to see if they will fly.