Thursday July 10, 2008 – Edwards, California
Our first stop during the Southern California trip was the desert, where a tour of NASA’s flight test facility at the Dryden Flight Research Center within Edwards Air Force Base (the U.S. Air Force’s premier flight test facility) awaited us along with the Ames and Marshall Academies joining us for the duration of the trip. Upon our early morning arrival through the Rosamond gate of Edwards AFB, a Dryden rep. named Winette promptly showed us where we could use restrooms and obtain much needed water for our walking tour in the desert heat. Our tour guides Curtis Peebles and Mary Ann showed up after a group picture of the three Academies beneath a mockup of the X-15.
Mr. Peebles started out by taking us through the various refurbished aircraft and aircraft models exhibited at the entrance of NASA Dryden. The F-8 Supercritical Wing featured reverse wing placement to decrease drag in transonic flight conditions. The F-8 Digital Fly-by-Wire aircraft was the first of its kind and was used to test Apollo program computers and assess pilot-induced plane oscillations. The SR-71 is a high altitude, Mach 3 reconnaissance plane that featured advanced titanium composite construction and was used for high speed research. The X-29 has forward swept wings that proved too difficult to fabricate due to its high strength needs. The F-104 had a flight test fixture to mount aeronautical experiments. The Lifting Bodies were designed to test a wingless body’s glide to landing, undergoing atmospheric reentry in the process. The famous X-15 set the world record for manned flight speed and altitude, and the data obtained from its hypersonic operating environment was crucial for development of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and even the Space Shuttle programs. After gazing at the array of aircraft displays that dazzlingly glinted beneath the desert sun, we watched a movie describing NASA Dryden’s exotic history of experimental aircraft testing, all starting from Center founder Hugh L. Dryden inside an auditorium.
We were then brought to Dryden’s Headquarters building – the NASA building depicted in the TV series I Dream of Jeannie. An X-1E similar to the one Charles “Chuck” Yeager used to become the first human to break the sound barrier in 1947 stood outside of the HQ. Attached to the HQ was a hangar that housed US Navy F/A-18 fighter jets modified to act as NASA chase planes, a turboprop-powered Beechcraft T-34 trainer for low speed chase and pilot training, and a T-38 supersonic jet trainer. We were shown 44 square miles of “the best landing strip in the world” outside the hangar in the form of Rogers Dry Lake, a lakebed ideally suited for the Shuttle landings and experimental flight tests that take place on it due to its broad, hardened, self-replenishing area.
Our final destinations were to an additional pair of hangars, the first one being where one of the original Lunar Landing Research Vehicles used to study lunar landing techniques was kept along with an M2-F1 “flying bathtub” lifting body used to test transonic stability, a model of the Space Shuttle, and a model of a US Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter jet that had been NASA-modified to conduct remotely piloted reentry studies to avoid human pilot casualties. The other hangar housed a pair of US Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles that had been transformed into high altitude, long-endurance science mission platforms. Lastly, Mr. Peebles showed us the Space Shuttle mate/demate device used to position the orbiter onto a 747 carrier aircraft for transport to Cape Canaveral.
After a quick lunch at the Dryden cafeteria the Academies departed Edwards AFB for the Palmdale California Airport where they were to receive a special tour of the SOFIA 747 Flying Astronomical Observatory. The modified 747 carries a very precise telescope with which it can perform advanced infrared astronomy at high altitudes (eliminating much of the interference infrared radiation experiences at low altitude). Each of the academies was given a walking tour of the hangar containing the aircraft, and also a tour inside the aircraft itself. Put succinctly, SOFIA is an amazing scientific instrument.