Next up was NASA’s Dryden Center, where camera crews once filmed a scene for the opening credits of the 1960s hit sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, in which astronaut Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) walks into the center’s main building. Of course, Dryden’s real claim to fame is the space shuttle. Even though the craft is newly retired, the facility continues to serve as a test site for every NASA prototype that might take flight. Most recently, Dryden engineers helped design and test the Orion crew module, which may serve as a lifeboat aboard the International Space Station.
Of the 20 or so research aircraft at Dryden, only its two Gulfstreams, lightweight executive jets, were in the center’s hangar. One of the jets is equipped with a radar system used for earth science research, such as studying the retreat of the Arctic ice cap. The other Gulfstream carries out aeronautic experiments to improve aircraft design. Dryden also operates three Global Hawks. Like its military counterparts, NASA’s fleet perform long-duration, long-range reconnaissance missions, only instead of spying they monitor greenhouse gases.
Flight efficiency, I discovered, is a big theme at Dryden. While the Air Force experiments with camelina-based biofuels, the engineers here have tested chicken fat as a jet fuel. The oil has been tested on a DC-8 passenger jet that collects remote sensing data, mostly for climate researchers, oceanographers, and geologists. Meanwhile, a chicken fat–free 747 doubles as a flying observatory, carrying an eight-foot telescope to an altitude of 45,000 feet, where it rides above the atmospheric water vapor that hampers Earth-based telescopes. The experimental aircraft is expected to eventually complement the Hubble telescope and other space-based observatories.
Just beyond Dryden we could see the Rogers Dry Lake Bed, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 in honor of all the history-making flights that took off and landed there. This arid clay plain features seven emergency runways, including one that stretches 7.5 miles, the longest runway in the world. The space shuttle touched down here until 1985, when NASA engineers determined the much shorter, paved strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida was safe for landings, although Edwards remained a back-up option.
The final stop on our five-hour tour was the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum. Inside I instantly gravitated to Chuck Yeager’s flight suit. Also on display was a Norden bombsight, used for high-altitude bombing during World War II, and glassware from the “Happy Bottom Riding Club”—the legendary 1940s watering hole where Edwards test pilots gathered to blow off steam. My stepson was fascinated by a display of miniatures called the First Flights Wall, which features the 149 aircraft that made their debut at Edwards. Many of the actual craft can be seen, including the sleek SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet and a Seabat, one of the Sikorsky helicopters that recovered the Mercury astronauts after their splashdowns.
Before we left, a docent helped my stepson jump into an ejection seat from an A-10 Warthog, a fighter designed to target ground forces. When I saw his eyes light up, I could have sworn he looked like Chuck Yeager.
LeeAundra Keany coaches public speaking to support her writing habit.
While You’re There
Every October, Dryden celebrate the space shuttle at the center’s annual Gathering of Eagles Benefit. Check out edwardsmuseum.org for details. The military facility popularly known as Area 51 is technically part of Edwards Air Force Base. Located in Nevada, 300 miles from Edwards, Area 51 (officially referred to only as “the operating location near Groom Lake”) is an Air Force installation that conspiracy theorists insist holds alien technology recovered from a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. You probably have to be the president to arrange a tour, but you can reach Area 51’s security perimeter from Nevada’s Route 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. A climb up nearby Tikaboo Peak will give you a glimpse of the mysterious base.
The clear, sunny skies that make the Mojave desert ideal for test flights also make it a center for solar power research. In nearby Lancaster, you can see the Sierra SunTower plant. Its 24,000 mirrors reflect the sun’s heat onto two 160-foot, water-filled towers. The resulting steam runs turbines that produce 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 4,000 homes. See esolar.com for more information. —L. K.