Michael Dudley said that for all of its space exploration, NASA’s goals are fairly down to earth and include “finding ways to make the Earth a better place” through an understanding of the climate and environment.
Dudley, who addressed the Rotary Club of Los Altos at its Aug. 24 meeting, has served as director of the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute since its establishment in 2012. He said NASA continues to explore the universe both remotely and by “going where no one has gone before.”
The Rotary Club appearance was a homecoming of sorts for Dudley. He grew up in Los Altos and attended Loyola School. As a child, he played at Shoup Park outside the Garden House, where the club meets weekly.
According to Dudley, NASA explores the universe and consequences of the “big bang” to help determine the size, mass and possible fate of the universe. Cellphones, global positioning systems and internet technologies people depend on today result from advances made a century ago, he said. Now NASA, using tools like the Hubble telescope, is helping to refine the laws of physics with discoveries Dudley believes will have similar impacts on mankind a century from now. He pointed to recent findings from the Kepler space observatory, such as the discovery of thousands of planets, including 30 Earth-sized planets, that have changed people’s perception of the universe.
Dudley acknowledged that we have not traveled far from Earth since the Apollo missions. To venture to destinations like Mars, NASA will have to protect humans from the long-term effects of microgravity and cosmic and solar radiation.
NASA’s aeronautics mission is of particular interest to Dudley, an instrument pilot with 47 years of experience. When NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was established in 1916, he explained, the United States lagged far behind Europe in aircraft capability. But in the 25 years preceding World War II, Dudley said NACA helped the U.S. catch up and eventually surpass the rest of the world. Since then, NACA and subsequently NASA have continued to develop advanced aircraft, focusing on transporting more people, faster and for longer distances.
Dudley said NASA also is developing supersonic transport. The technology to build and fly such planes has existed since the Concorde flew in 1969, he noted, but “sonic booms, ozone depletion and takeoff noise prevented commercial success.” NASA plans to build a low-boom flight demonstrator to help overcome some of these barriers, he added.
During a question-and-answer session, a Rotarian asked Dudley if wind tunnels like those at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View would become obsolete.
“Their demise has been predicted for decades, and computers’ ability to analyze fluid dynamics continues to improve,” Dudley said, “But there is still a high demand for the physical modeling provided by wind tunnels.”
Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit losaltosrotary.org.