Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ring out the Old

As we get to the end of 2014, I have been able to take some time to marvel at all that has occurred—in my research lab, in Space Grant, in my personal life… but I won’t be going into all of those details here.  It has been interesting to note that, although I have been travelling nearly as much as ever, this year’s flight miles have been lower.  One reason is that several of my trips—including my Human Factors and Ergonomics Society meetings, and a trip to Iowa for a Space Grant outreach talk—have been driving rather than flying trips.  But as the Fall semester winds to a close, and the Indiana temperature begins to dip below zero (Celsius, if not Fahrenheit), travel takes on a different level of need for preparation and contingency.  So, what’s the solution?  Fly to California, where it’s nice all the time!

Well, it’s not quite that simple, or that self-indulgent.  For one of my projects, a team of researchers are investigating the role of weather information presentation on how general aviation pilots understand and respond to (and, we hope, avoid) potentially dangerous weather.  (Apparently, Harry Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life could fly through a snowstorm to get back home for his brother on New Year’s Eve, but most recreational pilots shouldn’t.) Many pilots are only cleared to fly in good weather (what’s called Visual Flight Rules, or VFR).  Despite (or in some reports, exactly because of) the prevalence and growth of smartphones and tablets that can display what might be assumed to be current weather, pilots have been known to fly into degrading weather (knowing as Instrument Meteorological Conditions, or IMC).  Anyone who’s flown in a commercial jet through storm turbulence knows that IMC conditions are not a walk in the park.  If you’re not trained for them, the combination of limited experience, transition from VFR to IMC, and poor information about the state of the world is a potentially fatal combination. 

Our project (funded by the FAA) is intended to understand how delays in updating and presenting weather information (including what might be shown on your tablet device) can further intensify the risks associated with VFR into IMC transitions.  I have been asked to take on a growing leadership role with our sponsors from the FAA in this project, starting in January.  Thus, there were some trips to take in December to make sure things were going to be on track: first to the William J Hughes Tech Center in Atlantic City, and then to the NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale.  In between final project submissions and grading, those trips were my final flight experiences of the year. 

I admit that the busy time of December meant that I was only paying scant attention to the weather report.  I knew it would be in the 50s and 60s while I was in Northern California, but with chances for rain.  Pack a rain jacket and umbrella; leave the parkas behind; no big deal.  Except that the rain was a big deal.  Historic rains drenched California on Thursday, Dec 11.  By the time I landed in Los Angeles on Saturday morning, the aqueducts were actively flowing, and there were standing puddles between the runways at LAX.  I noted that with some bemusement.  By the time I got to San Jose, it became even more obvious that a whole lot of rain had fallen (some areas in the Bay Area got 6-10 inches of rain), with more on the way.  The big question was, after three years of devastating drought, what to do with all of this water and reservoirs that had filled almost literally overnight.  By Monday, my visit to NASA Ames was met by some surprising residents that I had not seen there before:  mushrooms. 

Monday Morning Mushrooms, NASA Ames Research Center

Well, that’s obviously not why I went to NASA Ames.  In fact, I had lots of reasons to visit.  For most of us in Space Grant, it’s getting to internship season.  Where do students want to go for their opportunities to get a foot in the door with NASA?  Which Centers have jobs, and how can we match the best students to the best jobs… early enough in the spring so that the students have the chance to take the job?  So, my visit started with the Office of Education folks, so that I could learn more about what they were looking for, and they could understand how to better coordinate with at least one Space Grant Consortium.  This seems like an excellent opportunity for collaboration and discussion, especially since I had the chance to be there anyway.  Really, I do encourage any faculty member at a Space Grant campus, and especially Space Grant Directors, to pay a visit to the Office of Education the next time you’re at a NASA Center.  The mutual learning can be wonderful, and is a valuable addition to the job and the trip.

Front Door, NASA Ames Office of Education (note reflection in the glass)

After visiting the Education folks, it was off to the human factors researchers.  There is a group at NASA Ames that has been doing work on aviation human factors and information displays for a number of years, and in fact had created some of the software that might be useful for our FAA project.  I like going back to Ames—the researchers in the Human Performance Research Laboratory represent every major phase of my NASA research career since my first years of graduate school, and it feels like I saw nearly all of them as they were going into their office or walking down the hall or moving between buildings.  Now, like a proud father, I can go and also talk to the people who worked with one of my current graduate students, Lara Cheng.  So, it’s not really a surprise that I was looking forward to visiting the human factors researchers in N-262 (it’s not just MIT that refers to all of its buildings using numbers).

NASA Ames Human Performance Research Laboratory, N-262

What several of my colleagues took great pride in calling out to me was that it was Ames’ 75th Anniversary!  Hold on, you say.  NASA only dates to 1958.  Yes, it’s true that NASA has been “America’s Space Agency” for about 55 years, but for 20 years before that, Ames research center was a site for major aviation research study, including one of the largest wind tunnels (capable of testing full-scale models, or even actual aircraft), operating as part of the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA).  Yes, 40 x 80 feet is really big. 

NACA 40 x 80 foot Wind Tunnel entrance.

Often at the end of the year, we try to make promises to get rid of old habits, and discard old features and functions.  As a fan of the history of technology, I’m not completely thrilled by taking that idea too far.  Yes, it can be a time for renewal, but I found myself appreciating the reminders of where we’ve come from.  I found it somehow ironic, with the recent announcements of Google becoming a major tenant (some would say landlord) for the Ames facility, when I found this reminder of what literature search and reference support used to be: the NACA Technical Service building.

NACA Technical Service Building entrance

As I was departing Ames on Monday, there was a break in the weather that allowed a view of the nearby mountains through the nicely cleaned air.  The NACA history was similarly clear and visible, with the wings logo providing a beautiful foreground.  (The story is apparently that one of the old NACA buildings needed to be torn down, but they salvaged the logo.  Now all that stands in the former site is the cement logo, and a small park.)

NACA logo, with Ames buildings and mountains in the background

So, as you ring out the old, don’t lose too much.  When you welcome the new, don’t assume that every new item will necessarily make your life better, safer, happier.  (Remember, that was why I was visiting on behalf of the FAA project.)  Be careful out there, and a Happy New Year to all.