Washington — Aeronautics research has long been the mainstay of NASA’s John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. But as the U.S. space agency’s spending on aeronautics declined just as the president’s Vision for Space Exploration was taking off, Glenn, facing the challenge of staying relevant in this new environment, saw exploration research become a major focus of its work, according to its director.
Woodrow Whitlow Jr., who took over as director of Glenn in 2005, noted in a Feb. 1 telephone interview that the center has managed to pick up major contracts that will aid the president’s vision for space exploration, including $113 million for 2007.
According to the five-year projection contained in NASA’s 2007 budget, Glenn’s procurement budget for exploration projects would total of $510 million, a figure that is subject to change with the adoption of each year’s new budget.
Glenn is leading the service module development, as well as the spacecraft adaptor integration, for the Crew Exploration Vehicle that will carry astronauts to and from the Moon. Glenn is also the lead agency for the design of several upper-stage systems for the Crew Launch Vehicle, which will propel the Crew Exploration Vehicle into orbit.
Thermal vacuum testing for the J2X rocket engine, which will propel the exploration vehicles, will be conducted at Glenn’s Plum Brook Station campus in Sandusky, Ohio. The 259-hectare campus hosts a number of testing facilities, including what the center says is the world’s largest space environment simulator, a propulsion research facility, a cryogenic propellant tank facility that simulates the space environment on a smaller scale, and a hypersonic wind tunnel.
“With the size of NASA’s aeronautics program decreasing, doing aeronautics research cannot carry the center itself,” Whitlow said. Before the exploration contract awards, the center had been mulling layoffs for its workers because of the possibility of reduced funding for its major areas of research.
In order to keep the aeronautics mission alive, NASA administrator Mike Griffin has shifted the agency’s focus away from large programs to smaller efforts that will provide a fundamental base for other research to spring from, Whitlow said. Because of the shift in focus towards exploration, one of Whitlow’s challenges has been making the administrative changes that go along with this switch, he said. “We’ve had to make a transition from being a center heavily involved in research and technology development to be more involved with space flight hardware development.”
As a result, he is in the process of creating a Space Flight Systems directorate for Glenn to manage the new exploration programs at the center, giving the engineering department a more streamlined focus, and changing the chain of command. Whitlow said he sees the rocket propulsion test facility and the space power facility at the Plum Brook Station campus as key for future exploration work.
Glenn is allotted $556.1 million in U.S. President George Bush’s 2008 budget request, about $20 million less than it expects to get in 2007, Whitlow said.
The center ended up receiving $645 million in 2006, significantly higher than the $524 million the center had been expecting at the time because of the exploration work that was added later in the year, Whitlow said.
Glenn’s current budget estimate for 2007 is $576 million, substantially more than the $380 million the center had been slated to receive, according to earlier five-year budget plans.
Glenn always has been a leader in the area of propulsion and remains so today, Whitlow said. It is managing the space propulsion program for the agency at large, and does work in such areas as electric propulsion capabilities, ion thrusters and radio isotope power systems, Whitlow said.
Another major research area for the facility is human health systems, making sure astronauts stay healthy when in space, Whitlow said. Glenn has an enhanced zero-gravity locomotion simulator that it developed as part of the exploration program to figure out what the “optimum exercise dose” is for current and future crews that travel to space, Whitlow said. The unit measures such things as body temperature and blood pressure as astronauts perform exercises.
“It’s going to be essential to ensure the health of astronauts in space for a long time,” Whitlow said.
The center, which was founded in 1941, began as an aircraft engine research lab for the former National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It was christened the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in 1958, and was renamed the John Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in 1999. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, did his training at the center, and Neil Armstrong started his NASA career there as a test pilot, Whitlow said.
“We still have a major role in aeronautics,” Whitlow said. Glenn invested about 38 percent of its budget in aeronautics research in 2006; the new exploration work made up about 40 percent of the budget, he added.
Glenn developed a power system for the international space station — the largest ever deployed in space, Whitlow said. The center was also the first to launch an advanced communications technology satellite in the Ka-band of the spectrum, the Commercial Technology Satellite in 1976. The development of traveling wave tube technology for the satellite used in ultra high frequency TV transmitters to increase their range actually resulted in the center winning an Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Whitlow said. The Ion engine was invented and conceived at Glenn as well. The center has conducted 62 microgravity flights and more than 130 science missions in space.
“We have a long and rich history, not just in space but many significant achievements in both aeronautics and space over the years,” Whitlow said.
The center has a number of partnerships, particularly working with the U.S. Air Force Research Lab in Dayton, Ohio, as well as the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Health, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and several contractors, Whitlow said.
The center also is involved with an education program to encourage students to study space and aeronautics science. Glenn invested $165 million in 2006 in the endeavor. In addition, it has designated 125 schools as “NASA explorer schools,” where Glenn works with teachers to help them develop curriculum geared towards NASA areas of research.
Glenn Research Center at a Glance
PRIVATE colorchange:<c”Black”>Mission: To conduct research in space power and propulsion, human health during spaceflight , communications systems and technology to advance the exploration of space while maintaining leadership in aviation propulsion
Parent Organization: NASA
Top Official: Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr.
Year Established: 1941
Location: Cleveland, Ohio at Lewis Field
Annual Budget: $645 million in 2006; estimated $576 million in 2007
Personnel: Approximately 1,670 civil servants and 1,360 contractors