Meet: Rabindra (Rabi) Mehta
Experimental Aero-Physics Branch Chief
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
Who I am
I am a Branch Chief at NASA Ames Research Center, located in California’s
Silicon Valley. My background is in experimental research of fluid flows as applied
to the field of aeronautics, a subject popularly known as aerodynamics.
I did all my schooling in England. My undergraduate degree was in aeronautical
engineering after which I went to graduate school at Imperial College,
London University where I specialized in fluid mechanics with emphasis
on turbulence (yes, the same stuff you often experience on airplanes).
My Ph.D. thesis was on the study of flow through the various components
of a small low-speed wind tunnel (the kind that lots of schools now want
to construct). I have written several articles that give "design
rules" for small low-speed wind tunnels:
As an offshoot, during the last couple of years I was at Imperial
College, I started doing some wind tunnel research on cricket ball
aerodynamics --- basically, a study of why a cricket ball curves through
the air (much like a curveball in baseball) and what parameters can
affect its flight. That is how I got started in the exciting field
sports ball aerodynamics. After I moved to California, I expanded my
interest to the aerodynamics of baseballs, golf balls, soccer balls
and volleyballs. As part of a NASA educational project for school children,
we tested tennis balls in wind tunnels to determine their aerodynamic
I have written several articles on sports ball aerodynamics
and regularly present my research on this topic at conferences all
around the world.
My Career Journey
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, which lies
on the east coast of Africa. I went to high school and beyond in England.
I came to NASA as a National Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow in
1981 after which I stayed on as a contractor through Stanford University.
I was hired by Ames as a Senior Research Scientist in December of 1996.
The person who influenced me the most towards where I am today is my
graduate advisor, Peter Bradshaw, who later moved to Stanford University.
A research interest that I pursued at Ames initially revolved around
the experimental study of streamwise vortex/boundary layer interactions.
This led to a deep interest in the three-dimensional structure of free-shear
layers, such as mixing layers and wakes. We conducted a series of experiments
in a specially designed wind tunnel over a period of about 10 years.
Later on I became involved in research on a relatively new measurement
technique, which uses special paints to measure pressures on a model
surface. The surface pressures are extremely important because they give
the lift and drag forces on the model and they can also indicate design
problems. The paint is excited by a special light source, and by measuring
the intensity of the emitted light, we can determine the pressures on
the model. Since 1998, I have been more involved in the management of
our experimental group.
Career Likes and Dislikes
The main positive part is that in a research
career you can work independently and there is the opportunity of doing
what you want. You come up with new ideas or new ventures, and within
reason, you can pursue them. I have been lucky enough to be able to do
that for most of my research life. There is the sense of a challenge
to uncover something that has not been uncovered before. Also, I love
the fact that we do not have to dress up (in suits) every day. The main
concern is that with research budgets constantly under pressure and the
high cost of living in this area, it will be harder to draw young researchers,
which does not bode well for the future.
The Early Years
At the risk of sounding corny, I have loved planes
since I was a little kid. My interest was maintained partly by looking
at books and partly by going to the Nairobi airport to watch planes take-off
and land. Like many small boys, my real dream was to become a commercial
airline pilot. However, once I joined the Royal Air Force as a reserve
(while I was in college) I soon realized that the only fun-flying was
in fact as an air force pilot and that commercial flying would be awfully
boring (worse than driving a bus!). The thought of leading a regimented
life in the Air Force, however, did not appeal to me and so I decided
to pursue a career in aeronautics research.
Nowadays, there are a lot of opportunities
for early learning in this field. A great way to start is by browsing
on the Internet --- just like you are right now! Another very effective
way to collect knowledge is by visiting science and aeronautics museums.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco has some excellent fluid flow exhibits,
and there is an impressive aeronautics museum in Seattle, where Boeing
resides. Building and flying model airplanes is also a great way to get
an introduction to aerodynamics while having lots of fun at the same
time. Concentrating on math and science while in school will help enormously
in any engineering related career.
I have a wonderful wife, Beena, who is a laboratory
technologist (yes, the medical person with a needle that kids are not
too fond of) and she works at a lab in Mountain View. We have one son,
Shalin, who graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in
Management Information Systems now works for Intel Corporation as a Software
Engineer. Shalin loves to play ice hockey and golf and he is s huge fan
of cricket, a sport I played for most of my life. I don't play cricket
any more, but I enjoy playing golf with my son. I just wish my game was
more consistent, just like millions of other weekend golfers!
with Rabi Mehta