It will be 70 years this Sunday, Dec. 20 since a small group of aeronautical researchers, with national defense in mind, took over part of Moffett Field. The year was 1939, and the U.S. government was watching closely as Nazi Germany built up an unprecedented air arsenal.
The resulting facility has been on the cutting edge of aeronautics research ever since.
NASA Ames was built by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's forerunner until 1958) as the U.S. sought to compete with the Germans in aeronautical research. In 1941, the first wind tunnel constructed at Ames was immediately put to use working on World War II fighter planes, including the P-51 Mustang, which had an aerodynamically induced vibration fixed by Ames researchers.
The vast complex of wind tunnels at Ames includes the world's largest, which features a massive air intake mouth that opens to the Bay's wetlands. Engineering marvels themselves, the wind tunnels are basically mazes of tunnels of varying size, some with steel reinforcements several inches thick to withstand pressure caused by incredible air speeds.
"We used to have one that went to mach 15," said NASA Ames historian Jack Boyd, who began his career as a "wind tunnel jockey" at Ames in 1947. (Mach 15 is equal to 11,418 miles per hour of air speed.)
Today, behind the security gate at NASA Ames, 2,500 employees are contributing research on numerous technologies and sciences.
Aeronautics has historically been the focus, however, and to that end, one of the country's most versatile flight simulators, the largest complex of wind tunnels ever built, and the sixth most powerful computer in the world, all exist here. All three facilities were shown to the Voice in a recent tour.
West Coast draw
In order to expand the country's aeronautics research efforts in the late 1930s, the site of NASA Ames was selected over dozens of competing sites by a federal committee headed by aviator Charles Lindbergh. Naval Air Station Moffett Field already had aircraft runways, good access to electricity and West Coast industrial centers. Stanford, which had a well regarded aeronautics program, was also a draw.
Under the leadership of director Smith De France, researchers came to Ames for more freedom to pursue new ideas, Boyd said.
Among the revolutionary aerodynamics ideas to come out of Ames is the swept wing concept, used by all supersonic aircraft, and the blunt body concept, a nose design (used in NASA's 1969 Apollo mission to the moon) which allows spacecraft to reenter the atmosphere safely.
Most military and commercial planes built in the last half of the century had their aerodynamics tested at Ames, Boyd said.
The Unitary Plan Wind Tunnels, Ames' "workhorses," are powered by four electric fan motors producing 65,000 horsepower each. Testing is often done in the evening so as not to draw down the local power grid in the day, engineers said. A network of compressors with thousands of fan blades forces air into test sections, so that the resulting forces can be measured across a scale aircraft model's surface to find design flaws.
Local residents have been known to complain about the resulting noise, which can sometimes be heard across town. Standing inside the wind tunnel creates an ominous feeling.
The NASA Advanced Supercomputer division has helped to mothball some of Ames' wind tunnels, however.
The new Pleiades supercomputer, along with two older, smaller supercomputers, take up a space the size of an average grocery store at Ames. With the computing capacity of over 2.5 million personal computers -- 673 teraflops -- Pleiades can do virtual studies of aircraft aerodynamics, make hurricane predictions and much more, said division chief Rupak Biswas.
Pleiades stands ready for emergency calculations during every NASA space flight, calculating, for example, whether damage to the space shuttle's heat shield will keep it from being able to withstand reentry. Computer images are displayed on the "hyperwall," a set of 128 LCD displays with 245 million pixels.
Despite advances in computer technology, engineers at the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel nearby said they are still quite busy testing scale aircraft models for the military and for companies like Boeing and Lockheed. The Boeing 787 "Dreamliner," which made its first flight Tuesday, was extensively tested here.
Engineers said computer modeling just isn't completely trusted yet over the tried-and-true methods of wind tunnel testing.
Another marvel of old-school mechanical engineering is Ames' Vertical Motion Simulator, which is housed in a three-story building.
Using hydraulics and computer controls, the simulator pushes customizable cabs -- their interiors tailored to resemble a particular aircraft or spacecraft -- up and down and side to side atop a three-story pole planted deep in the ground. It's currently being used to test a new airship design for the Defense Department, said engineer Paul Fast, and the country's astronauts regularly use it for training.
New development could take Ames from its origins as an aeronautical research facility into new fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. Though the Army and the National Guard still have a significant presence at Moffett (the Navy left at the end of the Cold War), NASA recently found a developer for a 77-acre, $1 billion NASA Research Park.
Still in its planning phases, the NRP would replace many old Navy buildings with new research facilities, offices, housing and a campus for a consortium of universities led by UC Santa Cruz.