The Many Worlds of NASA, Part 2

As promised, here’s part 2 of my discussion on the NASA organization. In Part 1, I talked about the different Mission Directorates.


In addition to inheriting various NACA responsibilities, NASA also inherited a variety of facilities that were aeronautics or space-related.

Ames Research Center (ARC)

Part of the NACA organization since 1939, Ames is situated at Moffett Field in what is today Silicon Valley in California. They began as an aerospace technology R&D center but have, like most of the NASA centers, branched out over the years. Their advertised capabilities now include (atmospheric) entry systems, advanced computing and IT systems, aerosciences (wind tunnels), air traffic management, astrobiology and life science, cost-effective space missions, intelligent/adaptive systems, and space and Earth science. Drawing on the brain power in Silicon Valley, Ames has an innovation-focused culture.

Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC)

Formerly Dryden Flight Research Center, Armstrong (named for Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, of course) is NASA’s flight research and test facility at Edwards Air Force Base. They’ve been responsible for developing and testing most of America’s “X” (for experimental) aircraft, going back to the famed X-1, which Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier. Their work with supersonic aircraft, hypersonic aircraft, lifting bodies, supercritical wings, swept-forward wings, and other innovations have benefitted U.S. military aircraft, civil spacecraft (like the Space Shuttle), and commercial aircraft. Before becoming an Apollo astronaut, Neil Armstrong was one of the test pilots of the X-15, still the fastest piloted aircraft ever flown.

Glenn Research Center (GRC)

Named for Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the former NASA Lewis Research Center is based at Cleveland International Airport. Another piece of the NACA organization, Glenn focuses primarily on aeronautics research and features a collection of wind tunnels, aerospace drop towers, vacuum chambers (including Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio), and aircraft hangars. Glenn also has had role, however, in space-related hardware. Its vacuum chambers at Plum Brook can provide realistic space environment testing for spacecraft and astronaut-rated equipment as well as vacuum-rated rocket engines.

Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)

One of the premier NASA Science Mission Directorate sites, Goddard Space Flight Center (named for U.S. rocket pioneer Robert Goddard) is home to the teams that develop and monitor most of America’s space telescopes and many of its Earth observation and planetary missions. They are also home to many of the scientists making sense of the data and images coming back from other worlds. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) makes use of mission data to describe and predict atmospheric behavior on other worlds but also here on Earth. Goddard’s missions have included Mercury MESSENGER, the Aqua, Aura, Terra, CALIPSO, and other Earth observation satellites, the science side of the Mars Curiosity rover, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Landsat series, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the New Horizons Pluto mission, and others.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

After Goddard, JPL might be responsible for the most successful and impressive NASA robotic science missions, in Earth orbit, around other worlds, or landing on other worlds. Somewhat misleadingly named, the “Jet” Propulsion Laboratory had its beginnings in World War Two, when the U.S. was just beginning to experiment with rockets. Today, JPL, which is part of CalTech, is now a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) administered by NASA and charged with developing robotic explorers and other vehicles. JPL’s great triumphs have included the Mariner and Ranger missions, the Viking Mars landers, the Voyager missions, the Cassini Saturn mission, the Deep Space One mission to an asteroid, the Mars Exploration Rovers Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Johnson Space Center (JSC)

Originally named the Manned Spaceflight Center, the astronaut training center near Houston, Texas was renamed for President Lyndon Johnson, who shepherded NASA through its initial birth and growth through the 1960s. Today, in addition to being home to the astronaut corps, JSC also has primary “mission control” responsibility for all crewed NASA space missions, including those flying to or aboard the International Space Station.

Kennedy Space Center (KSC)

Sharing a stretch of Florida coastline with Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, KSC is where most of NASA’s rockets and payloads have launched from (some others have flown out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Kodiak Launch Facility in Alaska, the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Centre in French Guyana, or Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan). However, for many space geeks, this is “where the action is,” if only because this is one of the few places where the general public can see space-related activities live, with their own eyes (vs. cameras).

Langley Research Center (LaRC)

One of the oldest NASA (NACA) facilities (1917), Langley began as an aeronautical research facility and still is home to some of NASA’s biggest, best wind tunnels for testing aircraft and launch vehicles. LaRC also has a hand in aviation safety issues, such as smog, and air quality. They also have a long-term planning office, which develops studies of future space hardware needs and human spaceflight mission architectures. This is a bit of an odd fit now, as they are no longer responsible for building launch vehicles or spacecraft, nor do they directly support the astronaut office. However, once upon a time, they were home to the Project Mercury astronauts and the agency’s Space Task Force, and they still have a hand in designing and testing new space systems including the Space Launch System (SLS).

Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC)

Acquired from the U.S. Army in 1960, the German rocket team led by Wernher von Braun built a new set of administrative, building, and test facilities on the northern part of Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama. Named for former general and U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the center was the design center for the Redstone rockets that launched the first two Mercury astronauts as well as the Saturn rockets that launched missions for the Apollo program. Marshall also was responsible for designing and testing the propulsion systems for the Space Shuttle and, later, the Constellation Program and SLS. This is where I spent six years at NASA, and my work touched on most of what the center did, including propulsion system design; some solar, planetary, and Earth science; and general engineering development and testing. Thanks to von Braun and the rest of the Marshall team, Huntsville has been “Rocket City, U.S.A.”

Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF)

Administered by MSFC, MAF (sometimes called “the MAF”) is a massive factory near New Orleans, Louisiana, where, originally, NASA assembled the Saturn rockets and later the external tanks for the Space Shuttle. Today, MAF is tooling up to build core stages for SLS. Rocket stages built here are shipped by barge to Marshall or Stennis for testing or to Kennedy for launching. Primarily a horizontal assembly facility, Boeing built a vertical stacking facility at MAF, originally designed to serve Constellation but now serving SLS. The place is BIG.

NASA Headquarters (HQ)

The “head shed” for NASA is, not surprisingly, in Washington, DC. NASA HQ is home to the agency Administrator, who is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. As of this writing (August 2017), the agency is operating with an acting Administrator, Robert Lightfoot (my former boss when he was Center Director at Marshall). HQ is responsible for formulating agency plans and budgets, interacting with and responding to the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and members of Congress. The various Mission Directorates are headquartered in Washington, as well, and directives filter down from there to the centers. There is an ongoing tension between where the “power” in the agency lies–with HQ or with the centers–and this tension fluctuates depending on the current President’s space policies, the personality of the Administrator, and the state of the agency’s budget. That’s probably a discussion all to itself, but suffice to say, HQ dictates the bucks, and the centers are responsible for carrying out the Buck Rogers, and one isn’t much good without the other.

Stennis Space Center

Built for the Apollo program in an isolated part of southern Mississippi, the Stennis Space Center, like Michoud, was also once managed by Marshall. In 1988 the facility (formerly the Mississippi Test Facility, then the National Space Technologies Laboratories) was renamed for a U.S. Senator who was a staunch supporter of NASA. It became its own master The primary purpose of this facility is to test rocket engines and stages. Given the immense power (and destructive potential if something were to go wrong), the isolation of Stennis becomes understandable. The center has tested rocket engines from 1966 to the present day, including Space Shuttle Main Engines that are being retooled as main engines for the SLS core stage.

Wallops Flight Facility

Another former NACA facility, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia was established in 1945 as an aeronautical research facility in 1945. Today it is home to most of NASA’s suborbital launch programs (sounding rockets) like the Black Brant. Wallops is also home to the launch site for the Orbital ATK Antares rocket, which sends uncrewed Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

White Sands Test Facility (WSTF)

There’s always got to be a place to test things that might go boom in a bad way. White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico is one of NASA’s (and the Department of Defense’s) places to do just that. White Sands tests and analysis potentially hazardous materials, components, and systems including “Composite Pressure Systems, Critical Systems and Materials Flight Acceptance, Hypervelocity Impacts, Oxygen Systems, Propellants and Aerospace Fluids, and Propulsion Systems.” The NASA portion of White Sands is run by JSC. The NASA facility was established in 1963, the DoD side (White Sands Missile Range or WSMR) has been in operation since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. began testing captured German V-2 missiles built by the aforementioned Wernher von Braun.

Other Facilities

There are some other NASA facilities scattered about that, until I sat down and started writing this, I honestly didn’t know existed or had their own websites. These include:

Independent Validation and Verification (IV&V) Facility, West Virginia – Established in 1993 to help provide quality control for NASA’s software systems.

NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA – Like the IV&V, NESC is designed to provide an independent source of engineering judgment or review. They also pull experts from the other NASA centers.

NASA Safety Center (NSC), Cleveland, OH – Part of the Office Safety & Mission Assurance (S&MA), NSC provides a central repository of S&MA knowledge, expertise, and education. They also help protect the safety of people, equipment, and property by verifying compliance with NASA’s S&MA policies.

NASA Shared Services Center (NSSC), Stennis Space Center, MS – Another shared institutional resource office, NSSC performs selected business activities for all NASA Centers in financial management, human resources, information technology, procurement and business support services.

Feel better?

Okay, so what was the point of my sharing all this bureaucratic minutiae about the U.S. space program? To give you a feeling for the various ways that you could support the agency as a technical communicator. You might have no feeling for rocketry or space whatsoever, but you speak accounting like no English major you know…perhaps NSSC needs your help. Or maybe you think astronauts are a waste of time and we should spend our time focusing on robots (shame on you! 🙂 ); in that case, you might be happier writing for Goddard or JPL. The point being, there are a lot of options to consider…and I just rattled off the government side of things. In my next posting, I’ll start talking about the space writing life outside NASA…and if you think NASA’s diverse, just wait!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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