Today I chaperoned a school field trip to NASA Ames Research Center here in Silicon Valley. The educational program focused on wind tunnels and some aspects of creating vehicles for space travel. Overall it was interesting and seemed to hold the kids’ interest pretty well. Of course I volunteered because I’m interested in this great facility right here in our backyard. Anyone commuting near highways 85, 101, or 237 in Mountain View has seen this facility’s impressive buildings.
Tonight I did a little digging to see what kind of online information I could find. The official Ames Research Center site looks very NASA-formal, but didn’t seem to have anything interesting.
A little more digging revealed the Ames Wind Tunnel site which has the pictures shown below and some more technical data on two of the active wind tunnels. It looks like the full list of wind tunnels on site includes:
- 80×120 (feet) subsonic
- 40×80 subsonic
- 11×11 transonic
- 9×7 supersonic
- 8×7 supersonic
- 12 foot pressure tunnel
(I had to look up ‘transonic’ to learn it covers the range of speeds just below and just above the speed of sound — about mach 0.8 – 1.2. Subsonic and supersonic are the speeds below and above the speed of sound, respectively.)
Today we got a personal tour of the 80×120 tunnel which is the largest in the world. Its last test was in 2003 with the parachutes for the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Discovery. At that time, the tunnel was going to be closed down due to budget cuts, but in 2006 the Air Force signed a 25-year lease to operate the facility with a focus on helicopter testing.
The smaller wind tunnels are part of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel complex which is registered as a National Historic Landmark. It looks like this facility is still quite active in part because they can achieve supersonic speeds.