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Meet: Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Aerospace Research Engineer,
High Speed Aerodynamics Branch
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California

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Who I Am
I am a research engineer at NASA's Ames Research Center, where I do aerodynamic performance prediction and design of subsonic transports. I've been working here at Ames for 18 years. I have spent about one third of this time doing experimental research in wind tunnels, and about two thirds of the time in computational research, applying computer flow simulations to evaluate new airplane concepts, or develop more refined theories. I have studied advanced design concepts like the "oblique wing" and the "joined wing," done design optimization on winglets (wingtips turned up like small fins), and studied an unusual flow control device called a "vortilon" that makes the stall characteristics of commercial transports safer. I am currently working on a project to improve the design methods used for business jets.

My Career Path
My father is also an aeronautical engineer, so I was exposed to the kinds of things he worked on even when I was very little. I can remember being two or three years old, and my bedtime reading was usually browsing through Aviation Week magazine. My coloring books had pictures of airplanes. I started building and flying model airplanes when I was about 8 years old.

I grew up with a deep love of nature, spending hours watching and drawing birds at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Center and Foothills Park. I was good in math but I really liked biology too, and through most of middle school and high school, I was pretty set on a career in life sciences. In high school, I had a great teacher for both chemistry and physics, and from these classes I saw how I could turn my fun with airplanes into a fun career. I picked the University of California at Davis for college because it offered aeronautical rather than aerospace engineering, and because it was a great spot for bicycling.

I came to Ames Research Center straight out of college, and started working on a wind tunnel project using miniature jet engines in a model of a jet fighter. After that project, I went to Stanford University for a year to get a Master's degree. When I came back to Ames, I worked on the joined wing project which required me to develop new methods for structural analysis that were fast enough to work together with airflow simulations. The joined wing is a complicated structure because the horizontal tail is stretched out and bent forward to connect with the wing, providing a kind of diagonal brace. The bracing lets the airplane have a longer wingspan for the same structural weight. Long wingspan is good because it reduces one source of drag called "induced drag" that comes from the creation of lift from the airflow.

While I was at Stanford, I realized that there was much more to learn to be a good airplane designer, and I also decided that some day, I would like to be a college professor. So I started working on my Ph.D. part time as part of my research at NASA in 1988. Part-time graduate study was slow, but I finally finished my Ph.D. in 1995. I continue my research here at Ames, but I also keep my eye out for a chance to teach at a college somewhere in the west.

What's Great About My Job
Engineering research draws on a huge variety of little jobs. When I want to do a wind tunnel test, I need to design the model and work with the machine shop to build it the way I want it. I must submit a report of strength calculations to prove it won't break. I select the instruments I want to use to take measurements of the forces like the lift and drag, and the surface pressures on the wings. I choose the flow conditions I want to simulate in the tunnel, and I evaluate the results.

When I want to do computer simulations, one of the hardest things is getting an accurate representation of the shape of the airplane. Sometimes developing the geometry takes more time than any other part of the research. Making sure the computer is giving the right answers, and making sure I'm asking the right questions, are both very important for design. Of course evaluating and understanding the results are the main goal.

Whatever the goal of the research is, it always breaks down into many smaller tasks, so the variety keeps work from getting boring. Our most important task is publishing the results. It doesn't do anyone any good to spend time and money to do research if the results are not published so everyone can use them. Most engineers and scientists are not trained to be good writers, so publishing is often the hardest part. But its also the most satisfying part of our work. When a report is finished and distributed, and other researchers and designers learn from your work to make their designs better, that's fantastic.

Just like any other job, not everything is fun. To do a research project, you must explain to managers why it's important and how it will improve technology. There are other good ideas that deserve funding also, so sometimes there isn't enough money or wind tunnel time to do something. Sometimes managers don't recognize the potential benefits, and often designers would like to keep doing things ''the old way'' so they don't pay attention to your ideas. And of course, just like Dilbert's job, there are too many meetings.

Advice
Well, most everyone will tell you to study math and science. I think its important to study writing and history too. The basic product of my work is knowledge. What I learn goes into the big pool of technical understanding about how airplanes work best. Aircraft designers and other researchers learn from my work by reading my publications, so clear writing skills are important.

The history of science and math is not taught very much in school. I think it's important to understand how it is that we know what we know. How did scholars approach science before Galileo's time, and after? When did scientists start to understand the flow characteristics around wings, or in fluid boundary layers. How did mathematicians invent calculus? I think every engineer should know more about the "cultural heritage of engineering."

Personal
I'm happily married, with a dog and a cat. We spend most of our time remodeling our little house, but we also love hiking and skiing. Jenni and I share a deep love for nature and wilderness. My biggest hobby is flying sailplanes. Modern sailplanes are very streamlined and efficient, built from carbon fiber and Fiberglas composites. I have a high-performance sailplane with a 15 meter wingspan that I use to race and fly for fun. We use a powered towplane with a 200-foot rope to get up to about 2000 feet. From there, we release and look for thermals, rising areas of air, circling in them to climb just like hawks. The thermals often go to 15,000 feet, sometimes higher. Then we glide from the top of the thermal, sometimes many miles before finding the next one. My longest ''cross-country'' flight was over 400 miles and took almost 6 hours.

I also fly powered airplanes, and I'm starting to build a home-built airplane of my own design.

Archive QuestChats with Steve Smith

 
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