— The ‘s role within NASA is changing as the center famous for experimental aircraft design and supersonic flight testing takes on an expanding role in support of space exploration and airborne astronomy.
“We’ve broadened beyond our traditional role,” said Dryden Director Kevin Petersen. “We’re doing more work for the agency now associated with some of the space exploration programs as well as some of the science platforms.”
NASA’s decision to move the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) from the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., to Dryden’s facility in Edwards, Calif., in conjunction with the agency’s plan to place Dryden in charge of flight testing the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle’s launch abort system is increasing the workload, budget and staffing levels at the Mojave Desert outpost.
Just a few years ago, Dryden’s budget was falling. It dropped from $225 million in 2003 to $151 million in 2007. During the same period, Dryden’s civil servant work force fell from 580 people to 515. Dryden’s work force is divided nearly equally between civil servants and contract employees, although the center does not maintain records on contract employee levels, said Dryden spokesman Alan Brown.
During the last two years, Dryden’s fortunes have turned around. NASA’s budget includes $232 million for Dryden in 2008 and a proposed $250 million for 2009. The center currently employs 560 civil servants and approximately 600 contractors.
Dryden is expected to remain busy over the next three to four years as teams begin testing the Orion launch abort system and SOFIA modified Boeing 747 jet, Petersen said.
Testing of the Orion launch abort system is scheduled to begin late this summer at in . The tests are designed to show that if a problem occurs during launch, the abort system will quickly lift the crew capsule off the Ares 1 launcher and return the crew safely to the ground. Dryden officials are planning a series of five or six tests for the launch abort system over the next three to four years, Petersen said.
During that same period, Dryden crews will be busy working on the program, which houses a large German-built infrared telescope behind a retractable door in the side of a 747 jet. The door in front of the 2.5-meter telescope must remain open during airborne observations.
Responsibility for the program is divided between Dryden and . Dryden is responsible for integration and testing of the aircraft. maintains responsibility for construction and testing of SOFIA scientific instruments as well as the conduct of the science program once observations begin.
flight testing is expected to begin this spring. Dryden officials hope to be able to open the telescope’s door and begin making early science observations later this summer, Petersen said.
To house , Dryden signed a 20-year lease on an old North American Rockwell B-1 bomber plant approximately 64 kilometersfrom Edwards in That plant, renamed the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, is being thoroughly revamped to make room for SOFIA, Dryden’s DC-8 flying science laboratory and the center’s other scientific aircraft, Brown said.
In addition to the DC-8, Dryden operates two Lockheed ER-2 Earth resources aircraft. The ER- 2 is a civilian version of the Air Force U-2S reconnaissance plane designed for remote sensing investigations of the Earth, atmosphere and oceans. Recently, Dryden acquired two Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, unmanned aircraft. The Global Hawks are scheduled to begin conducting atmospheric and surface measurements over the Pacific Ocean
In the past, Dryden’s work was concentrated on the development and testing of advanced aircraft. The center’s sophisticated simulation laboratory, aircraft integration facility and aeronautical test ranges still are used by government agencies and aerospace manufacturers. For example, Dryden is scheduled to conduct flight tests this year of an X-48B Blended Wing Body aircraft. The plane, which looks like a triangular wing, is being developed by Boeing Phantom Works of . Boeing is working with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in and NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate to study the aerodynamic and structural advantages of the unusual design.
While the vast majority of Dryden’s funding comes from within NASA, the center’s budget in 2008 included about $20 million from other customers, including the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Each center has to look for new opportunities within NASA and then fill the gaps through partnerships with other agencies,” Petersen said. “We look for opportunities that help us maintain our competencies.”
Within NASA, Dryden serves as the alternate landing site for the space shuttle. When adverse weather conditions prevent the shuttle from landing at the , it touches down at Dryden. That happened in November, when STS-127 landed at Dryden. After a shuttle landing, Dryden workers spend seven to 10 days processing the shuttle and mounting it on top of a 747 modified to carry the orbiter back to
AT A GLANCE
Mission: To advance technology and science through flight by performing flight research and technology integration; validate space exploration concepts; conduct airborne remote sensing and science missions; and support operations of the space shuttle and the international space station.
Parent Organization: NASA
Top Official: Kevin Petersen, Director
Year Established: The facility has been used for aircraft testing since the 1940s and was renamed in 1976.
Annual Budget: $232 million
Personnel: 560 civil employees and 600 contractors