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NASA Ames Research Center Update on the Wind Tunnel Closures

Status Report From: Ames Research Center
Posted: Friday, June 6, 2003

Date: Thu, 05 Jun 2003 20:23:51 -0700
To: (Recipient list suppressed)
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Subject: Update on the Wind Tunnel Closures

TO: Staff

FROM: George H. Kidwell, Director (Acting), Research and Development Services

SUBJECT: Update on the Wind Tunnel Closures

On May 16, 2003, the Wind Tunnel Operations Division (Code FO) initiated the closure of the National Full-Scale Aerodynamic Complex (NFAC) and 12-Foot. Pressure Wind Tunnel facilities. I would like to provide some background on this event and to put it into the context of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Anyone who has been close to wind tunnel operations (either programmatically or physically) up until 1996 knows that they were all, more or less, very busy. In those days, funding to operate them came from a source known as Program Support, and customers paid fees only if their testing was for proprietary projects whose data could not be publicly released. In subsequent years, Ames' program support was eliminated, and all customers were required to pay fees to support the costs of operation. This has not been an issue for the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel Complex, which has had a steady customer base.

However, for facilities that have a limited set of customers, particularly the NFAC, testing income has been insufficient to pay the operation costs. This was exacerbated when the NASA Rotorcraft Program was terminated in fiscal year 2002. Ames has been in discussions with NASA Headquarters throughout FY03 to identify funds to support the NFAC and 12-Foot. By keeping the NFAC and 12-Foot open during this period, and without any significant testing income from either wind tunnel, this has meant that all NFAC and 12-Foot costs to date have been borne by the testing in the Unitary.

On April 29, 2003, Associate Administrator for Aerospace Technology Dr. Jerry Creedon sent a letter to Center Director Scott Hubbard, observing the challenging environment for operating Ames' wind tunnels and asking for a plan for keeping them open. It is clear to Scott and myself that the Unitary has a viable business base. However, it is equally clear that specialized facilities such as the NFAC, although they are unique in the world and provide incredible testing capability, cannot survive in a full-cost environment without some form of non-customer funding to help preserve the capability. Thus, Ames' response to Dr. Creedon was agreement that the NFAC and 12-Foot could not operate without a subsidy, and absent such a subsidy, they would be immediately closed. The remainder of FY03 will be used to prepare the facilities for closure. If the NFAC and 12-Foot are not brought back on-line by the end of FY04, they will be closed permanently.

Since that action on May 16, 2003, two things have happened. First, a number of unscheduled testing customers have become concerned and are expressing their concern at different levels of management, both at Ames and at Headquarters. Second, there has begun discussion with the centers and Headquarters Code R concerning approaches to supporting research facilities in a full-cost environment. Such "core funding" could significantly reduce the cost of NFAC testing and make it fiscally viable as well as operationally available. We are working hard with Headquarters to develop such a solution.

Meanwhile, the civil service work force of the Wind Tunnel Operations Division will remain unchanged until the fate of the NFAC is made reasonably clear. If the NFAC should remain closed, it will be after sufficient assessment of the needs of NASA and the Nation. In today's dynamic economic and technological environment, change is essential, but only when new technologies, tools or facilities are available to replace older ones. Ames civil servants who might ultimately be impacted by closure of these facilities would be reassigned within the Center.

The Wind Tunnel Operations Division staff will be kept apprised of the situation.

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