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?
Steven 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.
NTB: The DAOF facility is located in what was formerly Rockwell’s B-1 bomber final assembly and checkout plant. How difficult was it converting an old aircraft production hangar into a state-of-the-art operational aircraft support facility that satisfies NASA’s requirements?
Schmidt: Modifying this facility to meet NASA’s science missions was a significant challenge. However, I have to say it’s also been one of the most fun and satisfying assignments, next to flying in a military aircraft, of course, that I’ve had in a long time. Prior to our occupancy, this facility was used to film several movies, like Hard Rain, the Terminal, and, I think, the last two sequels of Pirates of the Caribbean. As a result, the facility was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.
When we took occupancy of the facility in October 2007, we were given approximately one year to bring the facility to an operational state before we got the first airplane. But the best laid plans do get interrupted from time to time. We’d only been in here about a month when the first airplane, the DC-8 and its support staff and ground equipment, arrived. To complicate the situation, the DC-8 also needed to prepare for the ARCTAS mission, which included an additional 125 experimenters and testers. A month-and-a-half later the SOFIA aircraft arrived with its support structure. So, we found ourselves making some very significant changes in our priorities that I think were analogous to moving furniture in while you’re building the house.
I attribute our outstanding success to the great team that I chose to stand up this facility. They simultaneously supported science missions, the arrival of aircraft, and having an open house within 18 months of acquiring the facility. There was no cookbook on how to do this, so it made it pretty interesting and challenging, but fun too.
NTB: The Dryden Aircraft Operation Facility is really an extension of the Dryden Flight Research Center, correct? What does DAOF give the Research Center that it didn’t have before, and how do the two interact with each other on various missions?
Schmidt: To answer your first question, yes, it is an extension of Dryden, and the facility serves as a long-term solution for supporting the various airborne science platform requirements of the Science Mission Directorate. The facility provides a base of operations for SOFIA, as well as the various specially equipped aircraft that support NASA’s Earth science studies. Whereas Dryden is located on Edwards AFB proper, this facility is located in the city of Palmdale, which allows streamlined access to the science platforms by national and international technical communities. The DAOF also consolidates the various science platforms and the other similar operations, and that creates significant operational synergy.
NTB: In 2004 you served as the Executive Director of President Bush’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy. How did you get that assignment, and what role did you play in the process?
Schmidt: During that time I was the special assistant to the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, and he asked me to take on that task. In January 2004 and we had a discussion, and he told me that President George Bush was going to unveil his new space exploration policy and he was going to form a presidential commission, and at that time he gave me the task to stand up and facilitate the commission and make sure the commissioners had what they needed to perform the task in accordance with the president’s directive. Six months later, the commission delivered a final report to the President.
NTB: Obviously much has changed since then. What impact, if any, do you think NASA’s new focus and direction will have on the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility and the types of projects it undertakes?
Schmidt: President Obama has indicated a strong interest in restoring science to its rightful place by furthering this country’s efforts in technology, environment, science, and education. That aligns very well with the scientific research and experiments that we perform at Dryden and at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility. The activities and mission operations and the airborne platforms that we have here at the DAOF fulfill a key mission in the Earth science and astrophysics areas, so it’s very positive for us.
NTB: You also served as the Executive Secretary for Management on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. How difficult was that assignment, and what would you say were the most valuable lessons NASA learned from it?
Schmidt: This was a very hard, difficult, and emotional assignment for me. However, it had a significant purpose and I was proud to be able to serve in this capacity for NASA and the country.
The loss of the Columbia was a very tragic and traumatic time for all of us. It’s a constant solemn reminder that the research and experimentation and discovery this storied agency undertakes is leading edge, high-risk, and very hazardous. This ill-fated event in which we lost seven of our precious family members proved that NASA is a close-knit family. We’ve undergone some organizational and cultural changes. We’ve changed our safety and communications. And we’ve also learned not to be complacent or take anything for granted. As a result of this, I think we’ve become more of a learning organization. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve changed, and it’s all been for the better.
NTB: Looking ahead, what are your top goals and objectives for the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility over the next five years?
Schmidt: The science missions that we have accomplished at the DAOF have been very successful. As a result, we’ve continued to receive support from NASA Headquarters, from the various science communities, and from Dryden. We’re working hard to continue these successes, and we’re continuing to improve the efficiencies and the effectiveness of this great facility, and ensuring that the scientific researchers and experimenters that come here have a leading-edge facility to perform their pioneering work.
We are striving to be one of NASA’s crown jewels in Earth-based scientific research and active experimentation. Continuing the build-up of this facility and giving our customers the opportunity to do pioneering research will allow us to achieve that goal.
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