Leading Langley


Positions: Deputy director and then acting director of NASA’s Langley Research Center (2014 to 2015). Directed Langley’s Exploration and Space Operations Directorate (2007 to 2012).
Notable: Bowles has worked at Langley for his entire 37-year career, starting in 1980 with research on advanced materials for aerospace vehicles and, later, for spacecraft. He was manager for airframe structures integrity and composites for NASA’s Advanced Subsonic Technology Program and was project manager for vehicle systems research and technology under NASA’s Next Generation Launch Technology Program.
Age: 62
Residence: Suffolk, Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering mechanics from Virginia Tech (1978, 1980 and 1990)

Dave Bowles, above right, and his team at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia are working to put the center on a trajectory to many more years of technical breakthroughs, following its centennial year of 2017 and the notoriety that came with the award-winning film “Hidden Figures.” Bowles faces difficult decisions ahead as he charts that course. The Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to Earth science instruments, including some made at Langley. The center’s wind tunnels have become expensive to maintain and some might need to be closed. Bowles discussed these and other issues with me in an interview recorded live in “The HUB” in the exposition hall at SciTech.

Read a compressed version here or see the transcript.


View of NASA administrator nominee Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to him one-on-one, but the people who have talked to him have been very impressed. I’ve been really impressed with everything I’ve heard about him, so I’m excited.

Future of Earth science instruments

Science, not just Earth science, but science is really much driven by the science community and what we call the decadal surveys. So every 10 years, the various science communities come out with their list of science priorities for the next 10 years. With Earth science, a survey literally just came out [Jan. 5]. And our new administrator said, hey, we should follow decadal surveys, so I think that’s very positive.

Role in urban air mobility

I think it’s going be a mix of purely autonomous vehicles and piloted vehicles. We have a very strong competency in systems analysis. We have an autonomy incubator where we’re taking skills from across the center, putting them together to work on what we call assured, or trusted autonomy. It’s really about the vehicle being self-aware, self-managed. Also, we’re kind of that bridge in a lot of areas between fundamental research and certification for the end user. So working with universities and doing some in-house low TRL research, taking that, looking at the applications, looking at the maturation of those technologies to ultimately integrate them into a system. That’s a niche Langley plays very well in.

Moon or Mars?

The new administration has just re-stood up the Space Council. So, the vice president chairs that. They came out with a Space Policy Directive 1 a couple months ago. The moon is definitely in our plans, but it doesn’t take Mars off the table. It still talks about Mars being the ultimate destination but there’s lots to learn and lots to do on the moon. So we’re developing those plans right now. To take things down to Langley, we have a rich heritage in human exploration. We were very involved in the Constellation program in the 2000s that was developing a plan to go back to the moon. And I think we’re involved now, we weren’t very involved in SLS [the Space Launch System rocket] aerodynamics. There has been data base development in understanding the aerodynamic performance.

Possibility of closing some wind tunnels

A lot of wind tunnels across the nation were built in the ’50s. Our newest wind tunnel is the National Transonic Facility, and that was being built when I got here in the early 1980s. So all of our tunnels are old. They’re expensive to maintain, they’re expensive to operate, so you have to be judicious. We don’t have enough money to do some key things because they’re nice. I’ve challenged people, at some of our facilities: “Where can we trust CFD?” Those are emotional and hard decisions but you have to be relevant and viable going forward. We have to make tough decisions sometimes. We try to make them with the best data we have. So, that’s what I’m all about right now is collecting that data so we can make intelligent decisions going forward.

Millennials and turnover

We have a lot of people who have stayed a long time. People in my generation, it’s not unusual. I’m trying to remember the statistic: People usually stay on average five years past their retirement age and actually further than that. We’ve heard millennials will come in, work a few years, change careers numerous times; they don’t have this vision of a 30-plus career. I don’t have a lot of data for millennials, [but] I don’t see them leaving. We try to keep it pretty interesting. I think one of the things that allows us to do that, and I’m a little parochial when it comes to Langley, but I think one of the keys there is we do everything that the agency does. We do science, we do space technology, we do exploration, and we do aeronautics.

Attraction of Langley for engineers, scientists

I think [it’s] the diversity of work. It’s not just space. It’s not just aeronautics. We have a very large program in Earth science. We cover the breadth of fundamental research through flight, through technology demonstration flights. So again, it depends. Do you want to become a subject matter expert in a narrow field? If you want to go touch hardware, build hardware, we’ve got work in that area. So diversity of work is what they get. We have lots of cool problems to solve.

Langley’s history

A lot of people don’t know the space program started at Langley, before NASA stood up. NASA was stood up in 1958. The Space Task Group actually started at Langley under N-A-C-A. A lot of those people ended up transferring down to JSC [Johnson Space Center], but we were heavily involved in the space program. … We managed the Viking program in the mid ’70s. A lot of people don’t know that. So it’s not just recently that we’ve expanded our portfolio. We’ve pretty much touched aeronautics, science, exploration, across all of this. I think it’s important that we continue in all those lines of business.

Effect of budgetary continuing resolutions

Actually, we’re kind of used to operating under CRs. I’m trying to remember back in the recent history when we haven’t started under a CR. So, there are some restrictions with the CR as far as new starts and things like that, but a lot of our portfolio is within existing portfolios, so we have some flexibility to do that. From an overall budget perspective, I’d say the last several years at an agency, and at the agency level, that flows down to Langley, the budget has been pretty stable.

Leading Langley