Meet: Steve Smith
Aerospace Research Engineer,
High Speed Aerodynamics Branch
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
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 24 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. My most
interesting project in the last few years has been to help design
an airplane to fly on Mars. The airplane is called ARES, and you
can learn more about it at http://marsairplane.larc.nasa.gov. I am
also working on a rocket booster design that deploys wings after
stage separation and glides back to the launch site.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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