Langley Looks to the Moon

by Robin Beres

While mainstream media may be transfixed by the gutter politics going on in New York, exciting, uplifting events are happening in other parts of the nation — including in our very own little city of Hampton.

Located on Hampton’s Langley Air Force Base just off the Chesapeake Bay, the Langley Research Center is NASA’s oldest field center. Established in 1917, the 764-acre facility consists of nearly 200 separate facilities and employs around 3,400 civil servants and contractors.

In the early 1960s Langley was a top contender to be named NASA’s Mission Control Center for manned space flights. But because the Hampton facility was so close to Washington, and Hampton Roads was already home to both military and civilian aerospace and aviation communities, NASA selected Johnson Space Center in Houston over Langley.

Although missing out on the Manned Spacecraft Center, Langley has nonetheless continued to play a vital role in the research and training that has made every space mission from Gemini I to Artemis successful. The historic research facility has had countless scientific breakthroughs and historic firsts. The first crews of astronauts were trained there. Langley’s Rendezvous and Docking Simulator trained both Gemini and Apollo astronauts. It is where the Apollo Lunar Module was tested.

Scientists at the center were instrumental in the development of supersonic flight. Researchers there created the world’s first transonic wind tunnel and developed today’s international standard for grooved airport runways. And, if you saw the fabulous — and true — movie, Hidden Figures, you know that those incredible women worked at Langley.

Today, Langley is very much involved in NASA’s plans to put humans on the moon — and eventually on Mars. The space agency’s Moon to Mars program is no longer just a dream or a science fiction story in Popular Mechanics. The Artemis space program is moving rapidly forward on several goals which include putting a base on the moon and eventually landing humans on Mars.

Last November, we watched the wildly successful mission of Artemis I, an unmanned flight that traveled 1.4 million miles between takeoff at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to its Dec. 11 splashdown off the coast of Baja, California. It was the first test flight of NASA’s Deep Space Exploration Systems (SLS), which include the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft. Many of those systems were researched at Langley. The primary goals of the mission were to assure safe crew module entry, descent, splashdown, and recovery. All systems performed as well as or better than hoped.

Next year, NASA plans to launch Artemis II, a manned flight that will travel around the moon and back. And the following year, it is hoped that Artemis III will deliver astronauts to the moon’s south pole where they will begin to establish a base. The space agency is already training the men and women who will be on those flights.

Williamsburg resident Zena Cardman was among 11 astronauts chosen by NASA to be part of the Artemis program. Although she wasn’t selected as one of the four astronauts announced on April 3 who will be members of next year’s Artemis II flight, she continues to undergo training for future space missions. In 2025, she could well be the first woman to set foot on the moon.

But of the four astronauts who were selected (Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Jeremy Hansen), Wiseman and Glover are both decorated Navy pilots who have been stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana during their careers.

Of course, it will take massive amounts of time, money, and research to put people on the moon and Mars. To achieve that, NASA is working with partners and suppliers from all 50 states. But Virginia’s own Langley Research Center may be one of the biggest players when it comes to developing the technology necessary to sustain life in deep space. Just a fraction of the critical research being done at the facility includes developing lunar payloads, robotic landers, and rovers as well as heat shield development and advanced autonomous assembly systems.

Nationwide, dozens of locations, hundreds of big and small companies, and thousands of people are involved in that research. Last Month, NASA released its FY 2021 study of its economic impact on every state. Virginia is one of the largest recipients of the agency’s $24 billion budget.

According to the space agency, there are 2,477 federal employees and more than 16,590 contractors who work for NASA in the Old Dominion. For every NASA job, there are an additional 12.2 jobs supported statewide. Economically, NASA’s benefit to the state is nearly $7 billion.

NASA’s economic impact on Virginia.

With the depressing news of all the political infighting and mudslinging, what’s happening in Hampton is more than exciting. It’s positively refreshing and inspiring. Want to see for yourself what’s going on down there? The Virginia Air & Space Science Center, located in Hampton, serves as the visitors center for Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base. It is also a fascinating museum and education center with an IMAX digital theater and a slate of summer aeronautic- and space-themed camps for children.

Virginians, like most Americans, are explorers and adventurers. Whether we’re descended from forbears who arrived here eons ago traveling across land bridges or among our most recently arrived immigrants, the desire to explore new places is in our DNA. And just so, the very vastness of space continues to challenge and fascinate us. Let’s go.