NASA Ames, a research facility left in the 80s.
Sept. 10, 2017, 9:05 p.m.
San Francisco, USA
This past week I took a tour of NASA's Ames Research Facility in Mountain View, CA. My cousin is doing an internship in their quantum computing division and was able to get guest passes to the base for myself and my aunt and uncle. The guest pass provided unescorted access to the base, though we did not have guides for much of the trip. Instead, we poked around different buildings that we could get into (these were typically those unprotected by keypads on their front doors), making our own tour and recruiting those who were willing to speak with us as our guides.
The folks we met working in these buildings were, for the most part, very welcoming and happy to answer any questions we had about the facilities and research they were doing. We took a look at the computing facilities, the unmanned aerial vehicle testing facility, the center that works on the Sofia telescope, the vertical motion simulator, and the Life Sciences library and laboratories. Ames also houses the world's largest air tunnel, is home to the Kepler project as well as many other scientific initiatives.
We arrived at the facilities around noon, and driving up to Ames it's impossible to miss the skeleton of the dirigible hanger that still towers over everything. The fact that the hanger continues to stand, though serving no obvious purpose, was the first sign that apparently no one at this facility is concerned about outward appearances. Driving around the base one sees the weathered carcasses of old helicopters and jets left to fall apart under the sun. There are trailers placed seemingly haphazardly around the base, some like the jets not being used and falling apart at their seams. The majority of the buildings are old, ill-maintained concrete structures, reminiscent of the old university I studied at in China, and the typography on the buildings telling everyone what they housed looked like it belonged in the WWII scenes from Captain America. One large PSA sign was a profile outline of woman wearing a skirt and high-heels at a desk typing at a computer, admonishing employees to "make their workstations fit them," not the other way around.
The first building we visited was the Computing Facility, but we didn't make much progress because there was a keycard entrance. Just as we were about to give up, an employee of the facility walked up. We struck up a conversation with him, told him how much we were hoping to see the supercomputer, and he volunteered to let us take a peek. The Pleiades supercomputer looks very much like a typical hosting facility, though it was built to achieve something like four petaflops (four million billion floating point operations per second). NASA uses Pleiades for all of its modeling needs, as well as allows associated research institutions and universities to use its computing power on projects in line with NASA's mission.
Next, we drove over to the unmanned aerial vehicle testing facility. It is in a small, nondescript building with signs warning of the asbestos used in its construction on the door. Again, this building was locked so we couldn't just wander in. There was a small window on the door and we took turns peeking inside. Inside there was a netted cage, and inside that cage two people operating multiple rotor-driven drones. One of the young men in the cage noticed us and invited us in to take a look. He told us they were working on a user interface for controlling multiple drones in a swarm. Imagine, for example, that there's a swarm of drones flying over a forest fire. How can you make it easy for one person to control the swarm even though each individual drone is in a separate location providing its own camera feed? After a few minutes of entertaining our questions, our interlocutor told us he had to get to work and we moved on to the Life Sciences building.
At this point, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Michael Oye show us around the life sciences building. Some of the laboratories he showed us were working on projects like shrinking the size of x-ray defraction machines, recycling solid and liquid waste in the most efficient way possible for use in long-term missions, using nano materials implanted into patients' brains to treat diseases like Alzheimers and schizophrenia, and theoretical investigations into the origins of the universe.
Following the Life Sciences building, we visited the only modern-looking building at Ames, which housed the Sofia telescope project. Sofia is an infrared telescope used to examine the distant (older) universe. Infrared shines through areas that visible light does not, such as areas with lots of dust. The telescope is used from a large plane with an open door, and I imagine controlled entirely remotely. In this building we found an intern who, like most of the NASA employees we met, was very friendly and willing to share his knowledge of the project with us.
Lastly, we wandered into the Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS). The VMS is a flight-simulator-like contraption on vertical and horizontal tracks, and can be tilted. It was built in the mid 80s for simulating if a vehicle (helicopter, plane, or boat) is designed well-enough for its pilots. Once they design the vehicle, they perform calculations as to how it will perform under certain conditions and upload those to the simulator. Pilots are then put into the simulator and evaluate if the vehicle is usable or not. Our timing arriving at the building was perfect--a previously-scheduled tour was just finishing. When we said we'd like to check of the VMS too, an engineer who has worked on the project for over thirty years showed us around. He even let us sit in the pilots' seats of the simulator, turned on the screens, and simulated taking a nose-dive in a plane.
Our visit to NASA was really eye-opening. While the buildings are old and dilapidated, looking like they haven't been modernized or even funded in the last thirty years, the obvious strength of the research center is its people. Everyone we met was obviously very bright, curious, and drive. The fact that they worked their is a testament to the fact that they are really driven by the mission and not by any promises of money. One can only hope that the brightest stay at NASA, in lieu of the better-funded opportunities elsewhere, be it in the private sector or in China. If the US hopes to achieve its goal of a mission to Mars in the next decade, NASA needs all the brilliance and resources it can get.