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The strength of American aeronautics owes a great deal of gratitude to the Ames Research Center, situated in Mountain View, California. It was founded in 1939 as an aircraft research laboratory by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the committee from which NASA was created. The center is home to three national wind tunnels, including the largest in the world. Ames research in aeronautics is ongoing in fixed-wing and rotor craft, air traffic control technology, artificial intelligence, and human factors.
Ames is NASA's Center of Excellence for information technology (IT). Advanced IT is the vital key to providing revolutionary solutions to the challenges posed by the increasing complexity of NASA's aeronautics and space missions.
Ames' IT effort uses advanced computing systems to analyze data, transforming it into knowledge that can be displayed in visual, virtual, and multimedia environments to aid in the scientific decision-making process. IT systems "learn" as they go, developing the capability to make decisions on the basis of "experience" using limited data inputs. Take, for instance, landing a damaged aircraft safely. Information technologies can draw from a knowledge base and make automatic adjustments to the plane, assuring a safe runway touchdown. Aviation operations can also be augmented through IT, providing air traffic controllers, airlines, and pilots with up-to-the-minute information about weather and aircraft position, and will select the best route to a given destination.
Advances in IT will mean intelligent spacecraft can explore planets, comets, and asteroids, working in teams without human intervention. Ames IT specialists envision special software and tiny on-board computers enabling planetary probes to be so small and intelligent that several can be sent on each exploratory mission.
"Our vision in NASA is to open the space frontier. When people think of space, they think of rocket plumes and the Space Shuttle, but the future of space is in information technology. We must develop a virtual presence in space, on planets, in aircraft, and spacecraft," explains NASA Administrator, Daniel Goldin.
Research in aerospace safety at Ames was highlighted in 1997 by creation of a computer generated "virtual" laboratory. The laboratory permits researchers located anywhere in the world to study potentially dangerous aircraft and spacecraft situations without risking human life. In the past, pilots, aerospace engineers, and scientists who were directly involved in tests had to be physically present in a building that houses the world's largest flight simulator.
|The air traffic management software program developed at Ames is used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for all weather conditions at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport--one of the busiest airports in the world.|
Ames' simulator is able to move airplane and spaceship cockpits in all directions, including 60 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally. Five interchangeable cockpits are used to simulate the Space Shuttle, helicopters, airplanes, and other aerospace vehicles. Researchers study aerospace controls, guidance, cockpit displays, automation, and handling qualities of existing or proposed aircraft or other vehicles. The simulator creates a convincing environment for a pilot and is controlled by computers programmed to represent each aircraft. Computers calculate correct aircraft response when a pilot changes simulator cockpit controls. In real time, responses by the simulator include cockpit motion, images in the windshield, sounds, and control readouts. Simulations are monitored from control labs at Ames.
Information technology research at Ames is also dedicated to seamless access to resources. Imagine a national computing and information infrastructure that allowed access to the computational resources of the nation in much the same way that one accesses electrical power today. In essence, Ames researchers are at the forefront of creating an "information power grid"a next generation Internet architecture.
Center experts are also busy defining the prospects for human-centered computing. This work is an effort to build cognitive prostheses, that is, computational systems that leverage and extend human intellectual and perceptual capacities. Human-centered computing is aimed at building computational systems that amplify human intelligence, not substitute for it.
|Astrobiology is the scientific study of the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This artist's concept represents Mars exploration, which is part of the primary astrobiology mission at Ames.|
Applying human-centered computing to aviation operations systems is already moving forward. Goals of the work are a major reduction in aircraft accidents and a tripling in the National Airspace System capacity by 2010. To handle the vast amounts of projected air traffic and reduce accidents, computational aids are under design. The envisioned system must not only indicate past and current states of the air traffic control system, but also must be anticipatory of opportunities and risks.
A unique branch of work at Ames is in thermal protection and materials. In conjunction with small companies, the center has been developing new Ultra High Temperature Ceramics--material that will enable sharp leading edges for space vehicles. For Lockheed Martin's X-33 program, a prototype suborbital vehicle to assess single-stage-to-orbit technology, Ames is providing thermal protection system expertise to several selected areas of the experimental craft. Both the Stardust spacecraft that will snag and return comet material to Earth, as well as the Mars Microprobes built to look for the presence of subsurface ice, have counted on Ames' thermal protection system know-how.
NASA's initiative in astrobiology is a primary mission for Ames. Astrobiology is the study of life in the Universe, the story of how an infinitesimal amount of the matter of the Universe assembled into the human mind, allowing humankind to contemplate its history and determine the course of its own evolution. Bringing its interests in astrobiology and information technology together, a NASA Astrobiology Institute is being formed, managed by Ames. This institute is a national consortium of scientists focused on interdisciplinary research, while also training a new generation of researchers with the broad skills, intellect, and enthusiasm to realize the future potential of astrobiology.
Indeed, astrobiology is a broad science effort. It embraces access to space missions, to study stellar nurseries in which planets form and organic molecules are synthesized, to search for life on Mars, to identify habitable planets circling distant stars, and to conduct experiments on adaptation and evolution of life in space. Astrobiology research challenges are profound. A few fundamental questions to ponder: How did life begin? Is there life on other planets, and how can we recognize its presence? How have the Earth and its biosphere evolved and influenced each other over time? What are the prospects for establishing stable ecosystems on Mars to support long-term human presence on that planet?
From early work in aeronautics to advanced computing technology and grappling with the origin of life--Ames Research Center stands ready to discover new worlds, generating new knowledge that stirs the soul, enhances human intellect, and enriches our lives.