Established in December 1939 as part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Ames Aeronautical Laboratory was named for Joseph Sweetman Ames, founding chairman of the NACA and the architect of aeronautical research in the United States. In 1958, the lab was absorbed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

When Ames became part of NASA, it continued fundamental research in new sciences and component technologies and became NASA’s lead center in basic life sciences research including radiation biology, adaptability to microgravity, and exobiology.

Some Ames aerodynamicists explored the complex airflows around rotorcraft and devised the first tiltrotor aircraft, while others modeled airflows using new supercomputers and created the field of computational fluid dynamics. To link these computers together, Ames engineers pioneered inter-networking, using tools from the Silicon Valley firms growing around it. Ames engineers and planetary scientists managed a series of airborne science aircraft, planetary atmosphere probes, and robotic explorers like the Pioneers and Lunar Prospector.

Into the 1990s, Ames drew university and corporate researchers into space exploration by developing the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field. And Ames leaders devised new organizational forms to create the fields of astrobiology, robotics, microelectronic mechanical systems, and nanotechnology.

The Crew-Vehicle Systems Research Facility (CVRF) at Ames was designed for the study of human factors in aviation such as fatigue. The facility includes a Boeing 747 full-motion, full-mission-capable flight simulator and a simulated air traffic control environment.

Today, Ames Research Center (located in Mountain View, CA) is NASA’s leading center in supercomputing and information technology, astrobiology and the space life sciences, and nanotechnology and materials science. In addition, Ames hosts the world’s greatest collection of wind tunnels and flight simulation facilities — a legacy of its origins in the NACA.

Core Areas of Expertise

Entry Systems: Every NASA-launched spacecraft that has entered another planet’s atmosphere or landed on another planet — as well as every NASA-launched vehicle that has returned from space to land on Earth — has been directly or indirectly enabled by the entry systems work at Ames.

Advanced Computing & IT Systems: Ames is a key participant in the advancement and use of supercomputing in support of its missions. The center became prominent in supercomputing with its operation of the ILLIAC IV — the most powerful supercomputer in the world at the time — starting in the early 1970s. Ames also hosts the agency’s NASA Advanced Super-computing (NAS) facility.

Aerosciences: Researchers have tested generations of commercial and military aircraft and NASA space vehicles at Ames’ Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel (UPWT) facility, which has been instrumental in the development of virtually every domestic commercial transport and military fixed-wing airframe since the 1960s. Researchers used the UPWT extensively for airframe testing and aerodynamic studies of the Orion space capsule.

Air Traffic Management: Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is a comprehensive transformation of the NAS that includes all components (airspace, facilities, equipment, services, workforce, procedures, etc.) that enable the nation’s air transportation system. Ames’ airspace modeling and simulation tools have been used to model the flow of air traffic flow across the U.S. and to evaluate new concepts in airspace design, traffic flow management, and optimization.

The Hyperwall visualization system at Ames — featuring 128 LCD screens backed with powerful hardware — enables NASA researchers to view and explore data in unprecedented detail. Here, the Hyperwall II shows fires worldwide. (NASA/Dominic Hart)

Astrobiology & Life Sciences: Flying hundreds of science payloads aboard the space shuttle, International Space Station (ISS), Russian probes, and small satellites developed at Ames, scientists have conducted biological research and technology development necessary to enable NASA’s long-term human exploration mission. Ames’ ISS Utilization Office coordinates and leads NASA Ames’ science, exploration, and technology activities aboard the ISS.

Cost-Effective Space Missions: Ames enables high-value science to low Earth orbit and the Moon. The Mission Design Center (MDC) facility specializes in conceptual mission design, focusing on low-cost, small spacecraft missions.

Intelligent/Adaptive Systems: Since 1990, the Ames Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) has been exploring extreme environments, remote locations, and uncharted worlds. IRG operates the K10 and K-REX series of planetary rovers and conducts robotic field tests in planetary analog sites including the Mojave Desert and the Canadian Arctic.