Beyond Planes at NASA's Ames Research Center

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Beyond Planes at NASA's Ames Research Center


 Rachel Kaufman

 Circa 1934 photo of Hangar 1 with the dirigible U.S.S. Macon. Photo courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center.

Home to the largest wind tunnel on the planet, NASA’s Ames Research Center has a rich history in aviation. It is also a 
contributor to nearly every NASA space mission, a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology, and a leader in astrobiology and synthetic biology.

One fan of the center is Mary Beth Wilhelm, a Ph.D. candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and a civil servant in the Planetary Science Branch at Ames. She is perhaps most known for her work on the landmark 2015 Nature Geoscience paper that found liquid water (very salty liquid water) on Mars. She's been working at Ames since she was 16.

"It was really amazing, as a high schooler when you're just learning what physics is, to be exposed to this extremely interdisciplinary field and learn from the world's experts on it," she says.

 A 40-ton crane carefully lowers AN aircraft tail from the rafters down through the open doors of the tunnel's roof. Photo courtesy of NASA / Eric James.


Ames Research Center was founded December 20, 1939, as part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an agency which was later folded into NASA. Charles Lindbergh helped choose the site for what was then called the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory; Moffett Field was already there, serving as a base for the Navy airship USS Macon. The facility’s famous Hangar One, which NASA now owns and Google manages, was built to house the Macon, a flying aircraft carrier that crashed off the coast of California in 1935. As the site already had runways, electricity, and was located near to the expertise of Stanford University scientists, it seemed like a good place to conduct flight research.

In the early days at Ames, research focused on engineering planes. Early airplanes had wings attached perpendicular to the plane's body, but at higher speeds, planes like that would become unstable. Ames researcher Robert T. Jones was the first US aeronautical engineer to propose sweeping the wings backward, a design used on every high-speed aircraft to this day. (German engineers had been working on swept-wing designs for several years prior to Jones' discovery, but the information hadn't reached NACA.)


In the early 1950s, NACA headquarters asked Ames to study the "aerodynamic heating" problem, in preparation for sending craft into space. At the time, it was thought that the more streamlined a spacecraft or missile was, the better. But the military was running into problems with the ICBMs it was developing. Models showed that the shock wave in front of the nose cone could reach 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit, 2,000 degrees hotter than the surface of the sun. That would vaporize the warhead in seconds and put a serious damper on the idea of sending a human into space in a similarly shaped projectile.

Hangar 1 at Moffett Field, Calif., 1992. Photo courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center.

Ames engineer Harry Julian Allen determined that a blunt-body vehicle—like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules that were ultimately designed— would throw the heat away from the reentry vehicle. Ames researchers also developed and tested heat shields used in the space program.

Ames scientists also built one of the two clean rooms used to hold lunar samples from the Apollo program. (The other is at Johnson Space Center in Houston.)


Though Ames is still a leader in wind tunnels and aerothermodynamics, it has moved beyond those fields to a broad range of other disciplines. Ames scientists helped found the field of computational fluid dynamics. They built many of the experiments the Viking rover took to Mars, invented aerogel used to collect dust from comets, and managed the Pioneer program, including Pioneer 10 and 11, the first human-made objects to leave the solar system.

Since 2009, Ames has been responsible for operating Kepler, the space telescope that has found over a thousand planets orbiting stars outside our own solar system. The center is becoming a leader in astrobiology and in engineering small, modular spacecraft (like CubeSats).

"Ames just has this sort of magic about it," says Wilhelm. "There's this really amazing culture that exists at Ames that I haven't encountered at any other NASA centers or other universities. It's a totally unique environment to work in." //

An aerial photograph of NASA's Ames Research Center taken in February 2012. Photo courtesy of NASA / Eric James.

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