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Q&A with NASA Glenn Research Center: Making an impact in the life of Ohioans

NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Photos Ben French
NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Photos Ben French

Like all NASA outposts, the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland supports all aspects of the organization's objectives in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. Triumphs of the field center's handiwork can be glimpsed in shuttle launches and International Space Station visits. But NASA Glenn's work can be appreciated right here in Ohio. Located on a 350-acre campus outside Cleveland, the research facility has an estimated $1-billion impact annually on the regional economy. hiVelocity recently spoke with Howard Ross, Associate Director for Planning and Evaluation, and Kathy Needham, Chief of the Technology Transfer and Partnership Office, to find out more.

We know that NASA Glenn supports our country's space program, but can you give us an example of how the facility touches our daily lives?

Howard Ross: There isn't an airplane that flies today that NASA technology hasn't touched. From the nose cone to the tail, you will find that every element of aeronautics has been touched by NASA. Here at Glenn, our biggest impact has been on jet engines that are used in commercial and military aircraft, including helicopters.

Can you give a more specific example of a NASA Glenn contribution?

HR: Glenn has made a huge impact in greatly reducing noise in jet engines. We developed a chevron for the back of engines that dramatically reduces noise. In the long run, our goal is to confine all noise produced during take off and landing to within the airfield so that none of the surrounding community will be able to hear noises.

How does technology make its way from inspiration to commercial application?

HR: The trajectory goes something like this: Somebody -- either here (at NASA Glenn) or at a university we work with -- gets a brilliant idea, they model it on a computer, a small prototype is built, and that model gets tested in a laboratory such as our Aero-Acoustic Propulsion Laboratory. If it is successful, we work with manufacturers to scale it up, eventually to full-size. Once it has been shown to work, the manufacturer says OK, let's put this to use in our jet engines.

How long does that process take?

HR: Our job is to work on the next generation of problems, not today's. That's for the manufacturers. Our goals for future generations of aircraft, including a 70-percent reduction in pollution emissions, better energy efficiency, and improved reliability and safety, may not be employed for 40 years. The GE90 engine, which powers the bulk of Boeing 737s, derived benefits from a program that existed in the 1970s. Because safety is so important, engine manufacturers are very careful before they make a change.

What kind of people work at NASA Glenn?

HR: We employ about 1,650 civil servants, plus another 1,800 on- or near-site contractors. A large population of those people are engineers, scientists and researchers. Three-quarters of them have bachelor's degrees and 15 percent hold doctorates. There is also support staff, human resources and business operations personnel.

A recent economic impact study found that in one year NASA Glenn created 8,000 new jobs and $1 billion in sales across Ohio. How does that happen?

HR: Our annual budget is $650 million. That money will pay for a lot more than just the salaries of the 3,400 people who work at NASA Glenn. It goes to companies that provide us with goods and services, and to the people those places employ. We buy specialty steel, computers, office equipment, down to Craftsmen tools at Sears and Home Depot.

In 2008, Glenn awarded $9 million in research funds to Ohio universities, including University of Toledo, Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve and Cleveland State University. How is that money used?

HR: We want the brightest people we can find working on our most critical problems. We have very large facilities here at NASA Glenn that require large teams to do testing. For items that can be tested at a university, we offer a grant so the professors can do small-scale testing at their lab before it comes here for large-scale testing. This in turn educates the next round of students working on their PhDs, masters and bachelors degrees.

In 2008, Glenn's Technology Transfer and Partnership Office oversaw the investment of more than $5 million in a number of small high-tech companies that "spin off" NASA technologies into new products. Can you provide us with an example of such a product?

Kathy Needham: A spinoff occurs when a technology that has been developed for one of our primary missions is moved into a different industry. To date, 1,600 commercial products originally were created for a different purpose. ZIN Technologies, a company outside Cleveland, produced a lightweight sensor designed to monitor our astronauts' health during space exploration. The company has teamed up with the Cleveland Clinic to manufacture a similar medical device that any of us might eventually use. The BioWATCH is currently in clinical trials.

HR: Here is another classic spin-off story. We needed to test the solar arrays on the space station to see if they would survive the rigors of space. The researchers who did the testing found that atomic oxygen, an elemental form of oxygen found in space, was very slowly corroding the surface. They determined that the process could be used to restore artwork damaged in fires by carefully scouring away layers of soot. It's a long distance from space station solar cells to restoring artwork.

Do things look as rosy in the coming years for NASA Glenn?

HR: Congress appropriates money one year at a time, so it's impossible to look too far ahead. But from everything we can see, NASA Glenn's budget and workforce is stable, and the forecast is stable too.

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