Parts of the Langley Research Center near Newport News, Va., are older than NASA. The facility, the civilian neighbor of nearby Langley Air Force Base, was created in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Some of the nation’s first wind tunnels were built at Langley, and two of the oldest were still fixtures at the center until earlier this decade.

As it has since Langley was established a decade and a half after the Wright brothers flew the first powered airplane over the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C., some 150 kilometers down the coast, aeronautical research accounts for the majority of work at the NASA field center. As in the Apollo days, Langley also has a hand in NASA’s human exploration program, helping to test the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which stands to be the next spacecraft to carry astronauts to the Moon and back. NASA has proposed cutting the center’s $767 million budget down to $738 million next year, but center director Lesa Roe says Langley’s 3,600 workers still have years’ worth of work ahead of them in the form of bread-and-butter aeronautics research, human spaceflight support and Earth science projects.

Roe, who has had the top job at Langley since 2005, spoke recently with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.


How many people work at Langley today?

There are about 1,900 civil servants and 1,700 contractors.


What are these people working on?

In the human exploration arena, the highest focus right now is on the aerodynamic database for the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket that’s being run out of the Marshall Space Flight Center. We’re actively engaged and working on that. We’re also building the aero database that essentially characterizes the Orion vehicle, and we’re leading the launch abort system for Orion out of Langley. In space technology, our top priority that we’re doing right now is focused on hypersonic inflatable re-entry vehicles. We’re testing a new ablative technology that actually could be utilized to land on the surface of other planets, or even to send payloads back to the Earth.


Is aeronautics still the biggest division at Langley?

Yes. We have roughly 500 people working on aeronautics here at Langley, compared with about 120 people working on human exploration programs today. In science programs we have around 200 people. Science is everything from the Earth science decadal survey missions to the entry, descent and landing for the Mars Science Lab that’s going to land on Mars in August. We have worked the entry, descent and landing for every successful Mars mission and the Mars Science Lab mission is one of those. In space technology, which focuses on technology maturation, we’ve got probably around 120 people.


What sort of work did Langley do for the Mars Science Lab?

We’ve had researchers and technicians focused on that mission for about the last 10 years. So it’s a pretty key mission for us. Also, on Mars Science Lab is an experiment called Mars Science Lab Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation, a first of its kind. It’s going to be measuring heat and atmospheric pressure of entry in the Mars atmosphere and that’s going to really provide some key measurements for us going forward as we think about putting larger masses down onto the surface of other planets like Mars.


What other work have you got in the pipeline at Langley right now, and what have you got planned to keep people busy when the current programs wrap up?

We’ve got lots of aviation safety, fundamental aeronautics programs and, certainly, aerospace, which is focused on the next-generation air transportation system. We’ve got the projects I described earlier for human exploration for the next five years and beyond. As the Space Launch System vehicle is being developed and the Orion capsule is being developed, we see work going out several years here for that. And we’re going to need to do some test flights going forward to support that program. We led the systems engineering and integration for the Ares 1-X test that occurred several years ago. We also were key to the pad abort test that occurred about two years ago as well. And we’re leading the launch abort system for the Space Launch System. We have had Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Sierra Nevada and certainly Boeing as part of the commercial crew effort coming here and testing in our facilities. And we certainly can provide that capability so they can see what aero forces they’ll be facing when they go through their launches. For science, we have key missions in all of the tiers of the Earth science decadal survey missions. Looking forward, we see work in Earth science.


What’s the status of the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory?

CLARREO is one of those missions that is in pre-Phase A right now and is kind of being held there due to flat budgets in the Earth science arena. We’re continuing to mature the technology we’ve actually built through prototyping. These are breadboards, essentially, that we’re doing tests on. We’ve continued doing key studies on how to get the cost of the mission down and finding new ways to actually get the science measurements, and we’ve had some very successful studies in that working with our science team and have some pretty viable options for actually flying CLARREO on the international space station and driving the cost down by fivefold. A pretty impressive level of work is being done there. So key in CLARREO is continuing to mature the technology, flying that on an aircraft, for example, and verifying that that technology is working like we expect it to. We have key experiments that have been awarded in the Earth Venture program that can help us work to mature the far-infrared measurement that we’re going to need as part of the CLARREO mission. We have a number of mission studies that show that we can actually accomplish the CLARREO mission at much lower cost and be able to do maybe 60 percent or 70 percent of the science originally planned.


Over the past two years, Langley has demolished two of the wind tunnels that have been on campus since before NASA existed. Are you looking at demolishing any others?

We’re looking at all our assets. If it looks like we don’t need any of them, say, when some of our computational analysis capability is advanced to the point where we do not need to have the brick and mortar wind tunnels, we’ll be looking to close things. We have closed some of our older tunnels, our 5-meter transonic tunnel we closed and demolished last year. Our full-scale tunnel that was built in the 1930s and was just a workhorse all the way up until 2010, we closed and went ahead and demolished that tunnel last year. So we’re making those decisions and taking that money that we save and reinvesting it in our infrastructure so that we have a viable infrastructure. We’ve done some investments in our 4-meter-by-7-meter subsonic tunnel to actually provide a first-of-its-kind capability associated with acoustics measurements that we’re needing to understand environmental impacts of aviation, and so that’s a really fundamental thing that we’ve done very recently and that capability is coming on line. Also, we’ve done some investments in our data acquisition on our national transonic facility, which is used for aircraft both civil and military as well as launch vehicle development. We’ve even tested submarines in that particular facility. So we’ve been able to make investments in those facilities by trying to focus on the things that we no longer need and can close and consolidate.


How might the proposed 2013 cuts and consolidation to aeronautics research, like hypersonics research, for example, affect Langley?

Hypersonics work is consolidated into something called High Speed Research, and essentially there were reductions in hypersonic air breathing propulsion with a focus on keeping the high-temperature tunnel viable here at Langley because that is certainly an asset that is needed for the nation moving forward. We are actively working with our partners in the Air Force to make sure that we are continuing to advance our national capabilities in hypersonics, so all of that effort is going on right now. It is something that is actively being worked out and it would impact us if those cuts actually come to fruition. That would do a pretty dramatic reduction here at Langley and at the Glenn Research Center. From a capabilities standpoint, that is a concern moving forward and we’re still working through that.


Could you ballpark a worst-case scenario?

We would lose about 60 people if the cuts go through, between the two centers.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.