Since 1941 the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has been a leader in aircraft engine research. Glenn scientists and engineers have been responsible for developing the technology that has created the world's most powerful jet engines for use in commercial aircraft. More recently, NASA Glenn programs have been working to reduce pollution and boost fuel efficiency, so we can all breathe easier while conserving an increasingly-precious resource. But change is in the wind. Funding cuts for NASA aeronautics this year and next means some of Glenn's programs will be shut down and testing facilities mothballed. And some of this basic research - often years in the making - will never see the light of day. ideastream's Karen Schaefer recently visited the NASA Glenn Engine Research Building that's at the heart of this work with facilities manager John Leone and she brings us this audio tour.
See Also: Change is in the Wind for NASA Glenn Engine Research - Part 2 (Feature Story)
John Leone: This is Jeff Swan, deputy chief for our division. The complex - ERB - kind of covers a few different areas of research. We're going to hit three of them. First one we're going to is the 1x1 - 1'x1' supersonic wind tunnel. This was originally built in the '40's. It was a scale model for the 10'x10' supersonic wind tunnel.
Mike Henry: I'm Mike Henry. Most of what we do here is aeropropulsion testing so we've got air-breathing engine-type technology. And we'll build scale models of that, maybe around 10%, 20% at the most.
What kinds of new breakthroughs have come out of the testing done here?
Mike Henry: I don't know if you saw it in the last year, there was a Mach 7 - it broke a world record - and then a Mach 10. Well we do exactly that type of research right here for inlets on those type of engines. Hopefully they're going to be a low-cost alternative to rocket engines one day, because they can use the oxygen in the air instead of having to put them in an oxygen tank.
Would you care to see the actual wind tunnel?
This is the test section right here. Basically we have a supersonic nozzle right here, we have many different nozzles we can bring up to accelerate the air to different speeds. We're getting ready to build up a new one over there for another test this year. A typical test lasts about from one week to three months.
Is it primarily used for aeronautics applications?
Mike Henry: Both aerospace and aeronautics. This is the highest-speed tunnel here at Glenn, it goes up to Mach 6. But Mach 6 takes a lot of energy, that's why this tunnel's so small. Even small it takes about 30-megawatts to run the power for this tunnel alone, so that's easily over a thousand bucks an hour just for electricity costs to create the power.
What kinds of testing facilities that are in this building are at risk of being mothballed if the aeronautics cuts go through?
John Leone: Well, it's kind of hard to answer. Back when we were busy we had only had about 50% of them occupied at a time. Now we're getting to where we've only going to have 20 to 25 facilities occupied. You'll have some facilities we'll have to put in standby mode, while you'll have other facilities that still have work going on in them. This is W-7. It's the high-speed multi-stage compressor facility and we have a couple of the people that work here. Mike Hathaway's a researcher in the area.
Mike Hathaway: This is our UEET compressor facility - Ultra Efficient Engine Technology. The UEET program is geared towards developing the technology to produce more efficient engines for the future. We have lost funding as you've probably heard, so we'll fall short of what our original goal was in this program.
And a more efficient engine allows less fuel to be burned, correct?
Mike Hathaway: Yes, reduces emissions to the atmosphere and hopefully translates into lower passenger seat costs per mile.
Something we could all benefit from.
Mike Hathaway: We're trying to put technology out there for the future for them to use to keep ahead of the rest of the world in aircraft technology. The Europeans have a consortium that they basically set as a goal to take over pre-eminence in the aircraft industry by 2010. And with the unveiling of the AE380, if that's successful, they're basically going to do it.
What happens to this facility when the money runs out?
Mike Hathaway: As I understand it, they'll end up closing the doors. There's a whole lot of infrastructure that supports this facility. And a lot of people. We've already lost some contractors who supported the facilities that we were running. And we'll lose probably lose more if things continue the way they're going.
Thank you very much. Good luck. Work fast!
John Leone: You know, there's a lot of talk about the facilities and how important they are and the uniqueness of them and the capabilities, but the other thing that you mentioned that should be brought up is the people that work in them. It takes quite a few years to get the experience necessary to be able to run these facilities.
When government gives and then government takes away, it must be frustrating to the people who work on these projects to realize that years of their work are not going to come to anything.
John Leone: Yes. (laughs) That's so true. And even though it's happened quite a few times to many people, it's still a frustrating event to work so hard on something and have the funding cut. And in our eyes, for the nation, it seems such a small investment to maintain these facilities for the basic research. Like Mike was saying, industry is just not going to get that involved in this type of research, it's just not profitable to them. But it's required for them to maintain their edge. And right now it looks like something we're losing.