Thanks to a deal with the U.S. Air Force, NASA Ames Research Center’s biggest wind tunnel should be reopened in time to test parachutes for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory.

The National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC), one of the largest wind tunnels in the world, was shut down in October 2003 as a result of budget pressure. It last saw action earlier that year, testing the parachutes that helped the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Discovery reach the surface of the red planet in January 2004.

Under a 25-year lease agreement concluded with NASA in late February, the Air Force plans to reopen the NFAC by the end of 2006 and invest roughly $20 million in the facility to get it ready by mid-2007 to test helicopters. Built in 1944, the NFAC has two test sections large enough to accommodate full-scale aircraft models and prototypes. One section is 12.2 meters by 24.3 meters and is capable of obtaining velocities up to 250 knots the other section is 24.3 meters by 36.6 meters and is capable of velocities up to 80 knots. A 2004 RAND Corp. report commissioned by NASA and the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense recommended preserving the NFAC, calling it “strategically important, especially for the rotorcraft industry.”

NASA still owns the NFAC, but it will be operated by the Air Force Materiel Command’s Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma, Tenn. U.S. Air Force Col. Vincent Albert, former vice commander of Arnold Engineering Development Center, will serve as the NFAC’s director.

Arnold said in an interview that NFAC should be ready by late fall to support projects like testing the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory’s parachute deployment, but getting the sophisticated instrumentation needed for testing military rotorcraft up and running would take longer, probably until spring or summer of 2007. He said that Congress already has approved roughly $20 million to reopen NFAC.

Albert said the Air Force has agreed to pay NASA Ames between $2 million and $4 million a year to lease the facility, depending on what support services it decides to buy from the NASA center. For example, if the Air Force uses Ames personnel experienced in operating the NFAC’s test facilities, it will have to pay Ames for their time.

Michael George, deputy director of aeronautics at Ames, said the rent and other fees NASA is charging Air Force are only meant to recover what it costs the agency to keep the wind tunnel in service.

While NASA will now have to pay the Air Force to use the wind tunnel, George said that is a much better deal for NASA than having to bear the entire cost of keeping the facility in service for only occasional use.

The Air Force lease also frees Ames from having to pay for such mundane facility overhead as the ground-keeping and security, expenses Ames has continued to pay since the NFAC was shutdown. Those costs now can be passed on to the Air Force.

Sweetening the deal for NASA, the Air Force also is committed to making improvements that NASA would have a hard time justifying in its current budget environment.

“That improved facility will be available to NASA for aeronautics and space exploration at an affordable price,” George said.

George said NASA expects to use approximately 10 to 15 percent of the facility’s available time for aeronautics research and space exploration-oriented projects, the first up being testing the deployment of the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory’s parachutes.

George said the deal reached with the Air Force not only helps preserve a “national treasure,” it also marks an important development in NASA and Pentagon cooperation.

“From national perspective, this represents the first real inroad into how we look at these critical assets from a national view, rather than just from a NASA or [Defense Department] view,” George said.

While the massive NFAC remains dormant for now, Ames other major wind tunnel facility — the Unitary Wind Tunnel Complex — has been busy so far this year helping NASA evaluate a design change to the space shuttle’s external tank and evaluate the aerodynamic properties of the shuttle’s would-be successors. The Unitary Wind Tunnel Complex is NASA’s workhorse, according to George. While its test chambers are not as commodious as NFAC, the powerful wind tunnel is capable of subjecting scale models to high supersonic velocities.

Since February, NASA has used the Unitary Wind Tunnel to test small scale models of the Crew Launch Vehicle and Crew Exploration Vehicle. NASA is currently using the wind tunnel to help validate a decision to remove the Protuberance Air Load ramp from the shuttle’s external tank in order to avoid a repeat of last July’s foam-shedding event. George said the Unitary Wind Tunnel also has been used this year by the U.S. Air Force to test F-18 and Joint Strike Fighter models.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...