Joho the Blog » What I learned at NASA

What I learned at NASA

Well, I learned a bunch of stuff, but I’ll only mention two.

First, NASA is as totally awesome as you think it is. I went to the Langley centerfor a one day visit, and got a morning tour, and it is a nerd-heaven work space, with no Star Wars white plastic, but lots and lots of dented workbenches covered with sprays of components. And it adds up to our species looking down on our planet. Ultra ultra cool.

Second, I got a tour of the National Transonic Facility by Bill Bisset, who manages the place. They test models in the world’s most sophisticated wind tunnel — they fill it with liquid nitrogen (which they make themselves) that’s blown in by the world’s most powerful horizontally-mounted electrical motor (that consumes an eighth of the output of a local nuclear generator), and they measure up to 5,000 different parameters. So, naturally, I ran an urban myth past Bill, because that’s an excellent use of his time.

I had been told by someone sometime that those little upturned wing tips you sometimes see on planes were discovered more than invented: Someone tried them out, and they turned out to increase the efficiency of the plane, but no one knew why.

winglet

Nope, nope, and nope. They’re called winglets. Here’s the story, from a NASA page:

The concept of winglets originated with a British aerodynamicist in the late 1800s, but the idea remained on the drawing board until rekindled in the early 1970s by Dr. Richard Whitcomb when the price of aviation fuel started spiraling upward.

Bill explained that winglets work by altering the vortex that forms when air rushes over a wing. “Winglets…produce a forward thrust inside the circulation field of the vortices and reduce their strength,” as the NASA page says. They increase efficiency by 6-9%. Bill said they also effectively increase the wingspan of the plane, but without extending the wings horizontally, which matters to airlines because they pay airports based upon the horizontal length of the wings.

So,yes, everything I’d heard was wrong. And, yes, it was in Wikipedia all along.

(And yes, I learned a whole lot more. It was for me a wonderful day.)

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