2011

Steven Schmidt, Director, Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF), Palmdale, CA

Steven Schmidt joined NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in 1994 as a project engineer and manager on programs such as the X-33, X-38, X-43A, F-15 Advanced Control Technology for Integrated Vehicles, and the SR-71. Between January 2002 and August 2004 Schmidt served as special assistant to the NASA administrator in Washington, DC, and from August 2004 to May 2008 he served as deputy director of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA. Schmidt is currently the director of NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF) in Palmdale, CA.

NASA Tech Briefs: You joined NASA in November 1994 as a project engineer and manager after a successful career at Rockwell where you worked on a number of programs including the space shuttle and the B-1B bomber. What prompted you to leave private industry and pursue a career with NASA?

altSteven Schmidt: When I was employed at Rockwell International, I was assigned as the lead flight test engineer on the X-31 Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability Program at Dryden. That program provided information that has been invaluable in the future designs of next generation fighters. It was the first international experimental aircraft development program administered by a U.S. government agency, and it was also one of the most successful efforts initiated by the NATO cooperative research and development program. 

One day at work, a manager from NASA approach me and he handed me a Dryden job announcement for a project manager, and he stated that I should apply for the position. I was a bit surprised, but also honored and flattered to have had someone at NASA tell me of this opportunity. I thought, “Wow, how cool would it be to work for NASA!”

I remembered when I was a kid in grade school, I had a very strong interest in astronomy and I had a desire to one day become an astronomer. My interest in this area was further inspired by Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, and the Apollo program. I’ve always been intrigued by NASA and the aeronautics, exploration, and science missions. I even filled out an application to become an astronaut. So that’s kind of how it all came into play.

NTB: One of the more intriguing programs you worked on and managed for NASA in the late 1990s involved the legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy-planes that the Air Force gave to NASA for research purposes. What types of projects did you carry out with those planes, and what did you learn from them?

Schmidt: That was first project I was assigned when I came to work for NASA and it was an aircraft I’ve always admired and wanted to be a part of. I thought, “Wow, coming to work for NASA and working on the SR-71 program, how cool is that? I get to work for NASA and work on one of the world’s most storied aircraft! It doesn’t get any better than that.” 

We used this unique aircraft to study various ways of reducing sonic boom overpressures that you hear when an aircraft goes supersonic over the ground, which is like a sharp thunder clap sound you hear when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. This project provided data to various aircraft designers to find ways to reduce the sharp snap of sonic booms and minimize the startling effect people experience when they hear the sonic boom.

Another project that I worked on was the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment, or LASRE, that supported the engine development for the X-33 program. The aircraft was fitted with a test fixture that was a half-span scale model of a lifting body with eight thrust cells of a linear aerospike engine on the back of the airplane. Because the SR-71 had comparable performance characteristics to the X-33, the aircraft operated like a flying wind tunnel that allowed the engineers to gather aerodynamic data in a real world environment.

One of the other projects I worked on was the USAF’s reactivation of the SR-71. Because we had flyable airplanes and qualified crewmembers, we were able to support the congressional directive and return three of these SR-71s back into active service. Those were some of the major ones I worked on. It was pretty interesting.

NTB: In May 2008, you were appointed director of NASA’s new Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, which you had basically been managing since its inception in September 2007. What is the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, and why was it established?

Schmidt: The Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, or DAOF as we refer to it, was established to serve as a long-term solution in support of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s airborne science platform, and a long-term base of operation for the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft. The facility also accommodates other specially equipped scientific aircraft that support NASA’s Earth and space science activities. It also provides a collateral aircraft operations site that gives us significant cost advantages by having all of these science aircraft co-located. 

NTB: What types of projects does the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility typically get involved with on a day-to-day basis?

Schmidt: Well, we opened the doors of this facility about two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, the SOFIA aircraft, which is a 747SP; two ER-2s, and a C-20 aircraft have been based at the DAOF. These unique aircraft are all being used for various scientific studies such as: archaeology, oceanic activities, volcanic activities, atmospheric chemistry, soil science, and biology. Recently we’ve collected data from the earthquake in Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf, and the Hyabusa asteroid mission that reentered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. We also performed an Ice Bridge mission to collect scientific data to study changes to sea ice, ice sheets, and glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic. We’ve collected data on air quality and pollution and its impact on the arctic climate and the effects of smog and greenhouse gases in California. We’re also using our C-20 to gather scientific data for studies on earthquake prevention, and on the recent earthquake activities in other locations around the world.

The SOFIA aircraft also provides us with a world-class airborne observatory that will complement the Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel, and James Webb space telescopes and major Earth-based telescopes. This aircraft gives us opportunities to view the universe that aren’t possible from Earth-based observatories. So there’s a lot of very exciting science research we get involved with here that allow us to interface with the various science communities from the various federal and state agencies, academia, and partnerships with industry. The science activities at the DAOF have significantly increased, which has made this a very exciting time and place to be.

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