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News > NASA seeks Academy's aeronautics knowhow
NASA seeks Academy's aeronautics knowhow

Posted 1/31/2011   Updated 1/31/2011 Email story   Print story


by Julie Imada
U.S. Air Force Academy research publicist

1/31/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- How many undergraduates can say they have briefed NASA on critical design needs for the next generation of America's manned space vehicles? Better yet, how many can say NASA agreed with their research and made critical design and safety-of-flight changes? The answer can be found in the wind tunnels and labs of the U.S. Air Force Academy's Aeronautics Department.

Dr. Tom Yechout, a professor of Aeronautics at USAFA, has led an undergraduate cadet research partnership with NASA for more than 15 years. The department established a $200,000, five-year project order in 2010 that will allow cadets to continue their research on various NASA projects such as the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

"NASA's commitment to continued support of our research efforts indicates NASA's confidence in the work we have accomplished for NASA over the past decade," Dr. Yechout said of the new joint-research effort.

NASA's future space exploration program has been in question for quite some time. Amid budget cuts and the soon-to-end shuttle program, NASA decided to look to future space and aeronautics professionals for help in designing the next-generation manned space program vehicle. That need, coupled with a long-time successful track record of cadet-led NASA research, brought them back to the Academy.

In the past, cadets have worked in teams with faculty researchers like Dr. Yechout on a variety of NASA projects including the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. Cadets also analyzed the effects of leading-edge damage on the orbiter's wings in the return-to-flight effort after the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

Once the last shuttle mission ends, the Crew Exploration Vehicle research conducted by cadets will directly support NASA's space mission. Other NASA projects cadets have worked on include the research and identification of the CEV's shape, the launch abort tower that allows the crew module to separate from the rocket in the event of an emergency shortly after liftoff, and the entire parachute-recovery system. Cadets have also mapped the wake of the parachute recovery system during the re-entry of the CEV to include parachute performance issues and determination of separation characteristics for the bake-cover.

Second Lts. Darren Montes and TJ West, two Class of 2010 graduates, won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics International Student Competition in August for their work on the parachute-recovery system. Their technical paper and presentation, "Experimental Aerodynamic Investigation of NASA Orion Forward Bay Modifications," addressed research performed in the Aeronautics Department's Subsonic Wind Tunnel. NASA has used these findings to rethink some of its operations and driving design changes to the CEV.

It was the fifth time since the NASA partnership began that related research was so honored at this industry competition that attracts student researchers from the likes of MIT and Purdue, as well as teams from as far away as Australia and Europe. The competition and the NASA work have also become a springboard for cadets to pursue advanced degrees after graduation: Lieutenant West is now pursuing a master's degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington, and Lieutenant Montes is pursing the same degree at Rice University.

"Our cadets are producing reliable, timely and accurate data that is firmly supported by scientific research, testing and facts," said Col. Neal Barlow, the Aeronautics Department head. "Our cadets' level of success is indicative that we are doing a unique job of integrating real-world research and education."

"This is a wonderful opportunity for cadets to become directly involved in future of America's space program - the research we are doing here is having direct impacts into the design and development of our future vehicles," Dr. Yechout added. "It's a testimony to the excellent effort that cadets have accomplished over 15 years to build that confidence with NASA's Johnson Space Center. NASA really provides an opportunity to them to realize our core value of excellence in all we do."

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