Last Breath

As NASA prepares to shut down a historic wind tunnel in Virginia, some hope for a stay of execution.

A supersonic transport is shown in the tunnel on January 17, 1975, where it was tested for low-speed handling qualities. (NASA)

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Useful as these studies may be—and profitable—the tunnel still has found itself at times literally underwater. “What finally caused a major disruption in our productivity was the hurricane,” says Cross, referring to Isabel in September 2003. “We had three feet of water in the wind tunnel. That shut us down for four months. The race teams were forced to find other tunnels. We never fully recovered.”

According to the current ODU team leader, Bob Ash, who took over from Cross about three years ago, the storm did $600,000 of damage. About $200,000 in federal emergency disaster relief came through NASA, while the rest was paid for by the Commonwealth of Virginia and insurance. Since Isabel, three nor’easters have flooded the tunnel less severely.

“Why are they closing the tunnel?” asks Ash. “The easy part is that it is so precariously situated near the water. Short of moving a 2.2 acre facility, they’ve got to take it down because of the rising water level in the Back River. Most people think [the rise] is due to global warming.” Ash cites a recent report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences that charts roughly a foot of increase in the water level at Sewell’s Point, about ten miles away, from 1928 to 2007. He’s resigned to the tunnel’s eventual closure, but like many, hopes for a little more time. “Our position has always been: We’re very proud to run this thing. We think it still has a few miles left in it. NASA notified us over a year ago, so we knew it was coming. But it continues to be my opinion that if NASA could let the tunnel die a natural death, then we could still do some unique and valuable testing here.”

Ultimately, the Air Force may be applying some quiet pressure, as the tunnel sits on land that belongs to them. “The Air Force thinks it’s ugly,” says Jack Ralston, president of Bihrle Applied Research, a local engineering firm that rents time in the tunnel. “If it weren’t on their property, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Everything’s really spit-polished at Langley Air Force Base because it’s the headquarters of Air Combat Command.” He too realizes that the tunnel can’t live forever, but has written his congressman for a stay of execution. “Why stop the facility from operating before they [NASA] have the bid to show the government that they’ve got the demolition contractor in place? As long as it’s standing there, it might as well run.

“I think it’s been kind of an orphan,” he continues, “step-child, whatever you want to call it. NASA and the Air Force don’t want to deal with it.”

Kathy Barnstorff, a NASA spokeswoman, says that NASA’s part of the agreement with ODU was to maintain the exterior of the wind tunnel “only to a level of safety. Once NASA decommissioned the [tunnel] in 1995, NASA has done little to maintain thet vacility except as it applies to safety. That includes items such as fire suppression system upkeep and sandbags to curb flooding.” This she says, costs NASA about $4,500 a year. The agency also made a one-time investment on $36,000 to replace damaged windows with plexiglass. The building’s exterior, a mix of asbestos and concrete, is dilapidated.

Barnstorff points to a combination of factors that have, according to NASA, rendered the tunnel obsolete: the growth of computational fluid dynamics, less money in NASA’s aeronautics budget over the past decade, and industry consolidation that has left fewer airplane manufacturers in need of tunnel time. Barnstorff reasons that Boeing chose the tunnel for its X-48C only because they had tested its predecessor here in 2006. “We already had a database from the full-scale tunnel, so it was logical for them to send the X-48C here so we could compare apples to apples.”

Accurate cost estimates for the demolition won’t come in for a month or more, and will include destruction of three smaller decommissioned wind tunnels at the center. But estimates for all four tunnels in recent years, says Barnstorff, have run from five to eight million dollars. A bit more than half of that, she supposes, might cover the full-scale tunnel.

What will replace the building? “That’s up to the Air Force to decide,” she says. Rumors are that a parking lot lies in the immediate future.

As for Hyde, he’s getting the word out via a web page, and has hope that NASA won’t do something irreversible, such as remove a propeller blade from one of the fans as a gift to a museum. He knows it can’t live forever. He simply wishes NASA would let ODU operate the tunnel, occasionally fixing it “with a crescent wrench and a screw driver.

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