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VIDEO: NASA Building First New Wind Tunnel in 40 Years at Virginia's Langley Research Center

Wed July 26, 2023 - Southeast Edition #16
The Virginian-Pilot & NASA

Flying cars. Space tourism. Safe reentry for astronauts coming back from Mars.

These technologies are still science fiction, but some will not be for much longer, according to Charles "Mike" Fremaux, the chief engineer for intelligent flight systems at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

The Virginian-Pilot, a news source based in Norfolk, recently reported that to test these concepts, particularly in regard to public and military safety, NASA Langley is building its first new wind tunnel in more than 40 years.

NASA Flight Dynamic Research Facility (FDRF), a project Fremaux has been pursuing for 25 years, will replace two smaller wind tunnels that are more than 80 years old. The center's most recent and largest, the National Transonic Facility, was built in 1980.

"These facilities are really kind of tailor-made for doing a lot of that work," he said at a presentation at the Virginia Air & Space Science Center in Hampton in July. The talk was part of the most recent NASA Langley's Sigma Series community lecture.

"That's not our traditional wheelhouse," Fremaux added. "We haven't tested anything with a propeller on it in decades."

That is because many new craft will depend on electric vertical takeoff and landing, or "eVTOL" technology. With likely dozens or even hundreds of private vehicles in the airways in the near future research is needed to understand how such vehicles will react in real-world conditions.

Fremaux expects some of these technologies will likely be mainstream by 2040.

The $43.2 million federal government contract to design and build the 25,000-sq.-ft. FDRF facility was awarded to BL Harbert International, a construction company based in Birmingham, Ala. The groundbreaking for the new wind tunnel was held last August; it is expected to open in early 2025, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

The 130-ft.-tall wind tunnel is quite a bit bigger than the test facilities it is replacing, Fremaux said: The 12-ft.-tall Low-Speed Spin Tunnel was built in 1939 and the Vertical Spin Tunnel, at 20 ft. high, was constructed a year later. Each was used by NASA aeronautic researchers to reduce the design risk of countless aircraft.

New Wind Tunnel to Give NASA Langley Much More Capability

The new FDRF is designed to provide scientists and engineers with a highly versatile and cost-effective vertical wind tunnel that will have significantly greater capability than the two existing tunnels it is replacing, according to NASA Langley, while greatly reducing the maintenance and operating costs.

These new capabilities include increased dynamic pressure, increased Reynolds numbers and less free-stream turbulence — all of which will enable NASA and industry partners to study the flow of air traveling around aerospace vehicles more detailed than before.

The new facility also will play a key role in testing the next generation of aviation.

The FDRF will help with efforts in sustainable aviation as NASA Aeronautics continues to make progress on achieving its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, as well as developments in Advanced Air Mobility and experimental aircraft.

"What we're going to do with this facility is literally change the world," said Clayton Turner, director of NASA Langley Research Center. "The humble spirit of our researchers and this effort will allow us to reach for new heights, to reveal the unknown, for the betterment of humankind."

The wind tunnel is the next large project in NASA Langley's facility revitalization master plan, which was developed to honor Langley's commitments to transformation, providing world-class research and reducing old infrastructure.

FDRF to Support Exploration of Solar System

One project Fremaux worked on using NASA Langley's other wind tunnels — there are currently around 16 operating at the southeast Virginia complex — was the Stardust Mission in 2006, the first spacecraft to bring back material from outside the moon's orbit.

Without parachute technology developed at NASA Langley, it would not have been possible to recover samples from that mission, he added.

Now, along with testing the next generation of commercial, earthbound aviation, the FDRF will provide experimental support for entry, descent and landing of missions returning from the moon and Mars, as well as exploration of the planet Venus and Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons.

Its research will support human space exploration, contributing to the possibility of safe landing and reentry on a human mission to Mars.

In addition, the new facility's research will be similar to some NASA Langley has performed for nearly 100 years as public and private air traffic went from hard-to-imagine to hard-to-imagine-life-without, Fremaux told the Virginian-Pilot.

The tunnel will provide safeguards not just for the public, he explained during the recent Sigma Series lecture, but for the technicians who work there.

"How are the models going to be launched and retrieved?" asked audience member Ronald Hermansderfer, referring to small, free-flying scale models.

"The plan is to do that just like we do now: A very skilled technician is going to launch the models by hand. That's not a joke," Fremaux answered in response to murmurs from the audience. "That's true, and we have one right here, now retired, who did it for many years. So, I know that was a loaded question."

He recognized Hermansderfer, who worked at the center as a technician from 1983 to 2002. During his time there, his job was dangerous: If someone opened the wrong door elsewhere in the facility, affecting the pressure differential, a technician could be sucked into the wind tunnel while launching a model.

Fremaux assured the lecture's audience that the FDRF's new system will have a pressure equalization system.

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