Huy Tran is the Deputy Director of the Aeronautics Directorate that performs research in air traffic management, advanced aircraft design, and thermal protection. Tran has made significant contributions to flight hardware on several NASA missions and was lead inventor of the Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA), an innovative heat shield material.

NASA Tech Briefs: What is a typical day for you?

Huy Tran: Because I’m up at the management level, my typical day will start with meetings in the morning at the executive level. We talk tactical issues concerning budget and latest events. Eventually that kind of information needs to be flowed down to our divisions and their programs and projects. I normally attend programmatic telecoms, talking with NASA Headquarters and program directors in the research areas that we work on to address any issues, concerns, or strategic planning that we have for our program and projects. Then, I also meet with the project managers, technical leads, and line management to ensure that we execute the projects that were assigned to us, and ensure that we have technical excellence in our research in air traffic management or in software.

NTB: I know you have plenty of experience with engineering and testing. Do you still get to do that, or is it mostly high-level work now?

Tran: Mostly high-level work now. I do some technical work in the sense that I sit on review boards, as a member of review panels. I sometimes provide consultation to technical folks on the areas that I have done my research in, typically thermal protection systems, or I talk to companies like SpaceX and Boeing that are working on the Commercial Crew vehicle.

NTB: Can you tell us about your work with the Commercial Crew vehicle?

Tran: I served as a review panel member for Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) — heat shield design for SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Working with others at Ames, we transferred the PICA technology to SpaceX and helped them in scaling up production of PICA-X heat shield material and design.

NTB: What kinds of collaborations are you trying to foster, and what kinds of exciting projects will we see?

Tran: Our most visible project right now that we are working on for aeronautics is the ATM (Air Traffic Management) tech demo project. We are delivering decision-supporting tools to the FAA, but in a way that integrates the latest technology from terminal to ground. That is probably one of the most highly visible projects in NASA’s Aeronautics portfolio. [The ATM (Air Traffic Management) project is NASA’s collaboration with the FAA and other industry partners to develop advanced automation tools that provide air traffic controllers, pilots, and other airspace users with more accurate real-time information about the nation’s traffic flow, weather, and routing.] I help the team stay focused and work on their deliverables, and I try to make connections with the FAA so that we can achieve our goals.

NTB: What other projects are you currently working on right now that you can tell us about?

Tran: Another area that we work on for aeronautics is advanced rotorcraft research. This is a combination and collaboration between the U.S. Army and NASA researchers from Ames, Langley, and Glenn. We are putting together a large test rig that is going to test out multiple technologies in the rotorcraft. It will go into our largest wind tunnel – the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex — in 2014.

NTB: You began your work in the thermal protection material lab, improving space shuttle tiles. What kinds of thermal protection work are you doing now?

Tran: Last year, a part of the aeronautics portfolio was in entry, descent, and landing technologies. This year, NASA wanted to transfer it from aeronautics into space technology so that we can better align research to missions. When it was in aeronautics, we were actually doing advanced research on the materials such as the next-generation of PICA, the heat shield on [the spacecraft] Stardust, and the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

We also were looking at a transformable aeroshell. The aeroshell actually will adapt to the dynamic pressure and temperature, so that you can do a precision landing or entry. In the typical rigid heat shield, you’re going to need a very large launch shroud, let’s say 5 meters or more. The idea of a transformable heat shield actually came up in 1996. Two years ago, we finally got to do some research on that. If you can stow your heat shield, so you don’t need a very large volume for launch, that will save quite a bit of money in the launch cost.

NTB: What kinds of advanced aircraft design are we seeing now?

Tran: NASA’s job is to develop the technology and let the commercial companies pick it up and make it into reality. One of the major design studies is a project called Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA), which is 6 or 7 different integrated technology demonstration projects. We help Langley Research Center in a couple areas such as our ultra-high bypass engine integration work. Those technologies are going to be demonstrated in collaboration with the aircraft industry for possible use in future aircraft.

NTB: What work is being done with air traffic management, another area that you focus on as deputy director in the aeronautics directorate?

Tran: That is a very exciting area right now for us. We are working on multiple components where we can increase the efficiency of the airspace. One of the things that we’re working on, and actually just sent its deliverables to the FAA, is called the Efficient Descent Advisor (EDA). Essentially it’s about providing decision support for the air traffic controllers that allows them to issue fuel efficient continuous descents during peak traffic periods that save time and also improve fuel burn for the aircraft, which is a huge cost for the airline. We came up with this tool that would help increase efficiency during the terminal and approach area, and also reduce the fuel burn (and therefore the carbon emission).

Another area that we work on right now that is very exciting for our team is DWR (dynamic weather routing). The technology is right now being tested in Texas, and our partner, American Airlines, is very interested in that. It is essentially a tool that checks the weather information, looks at the routing, and suggests more efficient routes around the weather.

ATM Technology Demonstration-1 (ATD-1) is one of our major activities for aeronautics. We’re hoping to do field testing and demonstrations in 2016 and 2017. That would allow us to demonstrate advanced ground and avionics technology concurrently. We partner with our Langley researchers, and we’re working on the ground tool and overall integration of the system. The combination between the three sets of tools would increase the efficiency of air travel significantly.

NTB: Does the emerging nature of drone technology and unmanned aircraft affect the technologies that you’re making and the work that you do?

Tran: We are involved in a project called “UAS in the NAS” that’s looking at how unmanned vehicles are going to behave and be incorporated into the national airspace system.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Tran: My favorite part of the job is to be able to go and sit down and talk to the technical staff. Most of my time is spent at meetings and telecoms, but I do try to go to a building and find somebody and just talk to them. I go to the lab and see what they’re doing. I try to understand what they do so I can better represent them back to the program or the project itself, and be able to advocate for our people.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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