NASA Langley Director Dave Bowles interview

Dave Bowles, director of NASA’s Langley Research Center, was interviewed on Jan. 11, 2018, by Ben Iannotta, editor-in-chief of Aerospace America, at the AIAA SciTech Forum in Kissimmee, Florida. The interview took place in the HUB in the exhibit area.

Ben Iannotta: All right, well good morning. Here we are in the HUB. I’m Ben Iannotta, editor-in-chief of Aerospace America, the AIAA magazine and with me I have Dave Bowles, director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. And we’ll be talking about just some of the themes raised this week and some of the work at Langley. How are you doing today, Dave?

Dave Bowles: Pretty good.

Iannotta: Good.

Bowles: It’s been a great week, a great conference. The whole theme of digital transformation is a subject I have a lot of passion about, so it’s been fun.

Iannotta: And I have a ton of story ideas in my notebook and some of them I’m pretty sure will involve Langley, so I’ll be back in touch on those too.

Bowles:  That’s good.

Iannotta: To start, I want to punch right in. I want to talk a little bit about your career. I think it’s really interesting you’ve been at NASA Langley since 1980.

Bowles: Yes.

Iannotta: Now that’s impressive but maybe not unusual for your generation. But I’m thinking for millennials, they probably come and go, maybe more than your generation, and you can correct me if I’m wrong. But so I’m wondering how that impacts a center like Langley.

Bowles: Yeah, so, I think we have a lot of people who have stayed a long time. People kind of in my time frame, my generation, it’s not unusual. I think the, I’m trying to remember the statistic; people usually stay on average five years past their retirement age and actually farther than that. So, yeah, that has been kind of more. And we’ve heard a lot that, hey, millennials will come in, work a few years, change careers numerous times; they don’t have this vision of a 30-plus career set in place. Although we don’t hire a lot, so I don’t have the opportunity to turn my workforce — first of all, we don’t have a lot of people leave but the government is not growing.

Iannotta:  I’m sure it’s a great place to work.

Bowles:  And it’s … I don’t have a lot of data for millennials. We are, 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. [inaudible] So I have not seen this big turnover.

Iannotta: So for somebody earlier in their career, early in their career or just starting out, you know, maybe touch on what are the advantages that an organization like Langley has compared to say, you know, Silicone Valley or one of the new space programs there.

Bowles: So I think the diversity of work. Again, it’s not just space. It’s not just aeronautics. We have a very large program in Earth Science and so you can do a lot of things. We cover the breadth of fundamental research through flight, through technology demonstration flights. So again, it depends. Do you want to become a deep subject matter expert, Ph.D. all over the world, expert in a narrow field, we have work in that area. If you want to go touch hardware, build hardware, see, we’ve got work in that area. So diversity of work is what they get and another thing, you know, we have lots of cool problems to solve. It’s just the nature of the work. There’s always an exciting problem to work on.

Iannotta: Well, let’s get in to some of Langley’s roles. The film “Hidden Figures” was obviously incredible, they highlighted one aspect of Langley’s contributions to human space flight, and of course, I think Langley is very famous for its aeronautics work going all the way to back to NACA. So, you know, how do you balance all that when you set priorities in terms of resources and hiring?

Bowles: So a couple things. First of all, just to touch on Katherine Johnson’s “Hidden Figures” story, so last year we celebrated our centennial.

Iannotta: Right.

Bowles: We actually broke ground on the first building in 1917. So we had lots of events last year to celebrate that celebration, celebrate the diversity of things we do and it gives us an opportunity to touch on some things people didn’t know we actually did. So, a rich history of aeronautics. That’s why we were stood up as the NACA. 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 NACA. A lot of those people ended up transferring down to [the Johnson Space Center in Houston], but we were heavily involved in the space program. [Inaudible] pointed out, first robotic, successful robotic, we ended up one on Mars. We managed that program, Viking, 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.

So now, how do we make decisions? So, I think it’s important that we continue in all those lines of business. And so, we just rack them all up and look, OK, where do we need the attention? Some things you can have more flexibility in schedule and budget, sometimes you don’t. It depends on whether you’ve got to meet a launch date or not. So all those things like you said, priorities and hiring. And one of the things I’ve done, [inaudible] at the center is changed how we do hiring. We used to get, I would get a number from the agency and then, you know, I’ve got a board structure and [inaudible] we get some fraction of that number.

It dawned on me that was a very suboptimal way to divvy that number up. So here I’m getting all of my research engineering boards and my customer facing aeronautics, science, space together and we’re going to say, hey go figure it out. If somebody needs it this year, then OK. If you can’t solve it bring it to me. But it’s gotten us to a much more optimal distribution of our workforce for the current period and moving forward. So, I think that’s helped a lot. The first portfolio I think is like key to our kind of our brand, for a lack of a better word and it’s not something new. It’s been kind of ours for a long time.

Iannotta: One of the hot topics here has been on demand mobility or maybe you want to call it personal aerial vehicles or urban air mobility. This is so new I don’t know if we really have a nomenclature yet. What is Langley’s contribution going to be in all that?

Bowles:  Yeah I think across multiple fronts. First of all, we have a very strong competency in systems analysis and concepts, we call it, to some of those early pre-phase A vehicle concepts, architecture concepts, architecture in the sense of, hey, there are multiple things operating in an environment. Whether it be an urban environment with multiple planes, or a space environment with multiple launches, just sticks around that. So both conceptual — OK, what might urban mobility look like? So then on the concepts stage, and then on the technology stage, you know if I look at autonomy, it’s either on demand mobility, I think it’s going to be a mix of purely autonomous vehicles, piloted vehicles. If I look at the autonomy thing, I think we play again in the vehicle, and I think the key to making autonomy more ubiquitous is a shorter time.

Iannotta: Yeah you have an autonomy incubator.

Bowles:  Yes we have an autonomy incubator where we’re taking skills from across the center, putting them together to work on this, what we call assured, or trusted, autonomy. It’s really about the vehicle being self-aware, self-managed, and [inaudible.] And so we’re doing all that, I think we also play a niche and yes we released funding for [inaudible] TRL research. But we’re kind of that bridge in a lot of areas between fundamental research and certification for the end user. I think that’s a niche that Langley plays well. 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.

Iannotta: All right, that’s the fun stuff. So here’s the question that’s maybe not so fun. With a new area like urban air mobility, how does operating under continuing resolutions affect that?

Bowles: Yeah so 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 in the way of money, is not you know, they’re 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. You haven’t seen a lot of [inaudible]. Actually, in the president’s ’18 budget, I think NASA did pretty well compared to a lot of government agencies. It’s kind of stable. Stability can be a good thing.

Iannotta: So it sounds like you’re able to maybe put a dent in this area.

Bowles: Yeah, yeah I feel like we’re making progress.

Iannotta: How’s it been operating without a permanent administrator for so long?

Bowles: I can’t say enough good words about our acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot. I’ve known Robert for numerous years; I knew him when he was the Marshall Center director. He actually moved to D.C. as the associate administrator in 2012. That’s when I first moved up to the office of director, associate director of Langley, so he just does a great job. I don’t know how he handles the increased bandwidth, because we’re basically down two people, an administrator and deputy administrator.

Iannotta: Right.

Bowles: And he’s picking up the slack now and he’s got a deputy associate administrator [inaudible]. So Robert does a great job, so I have no concerns about what he’s doing. Obviously I don’t want him to get burned out.

Iannotta: Right.

Bowles:  But he does a great job, he’s got a — a great leader, great people skills, there’s just so much that stands within the agency. So I’m not concerned about his role. I think it will be good to get a new administrator, because there’s certain things that the administrator can do with the White House but it’ll play out.

Iannotta: What are your impressions of the nominee, Congressman Bridenstine?

Bowles:  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 [inaudible]. And I’ve been really impressed with everything I’ve heard about him. So I’m excited.

Iannotta: OK, let’s talk human space flight a little bit. So, where are we going, to the moon or Mars?

Bowles: Well, you know, the new administration has just re-stood up the Space Council. So, the vice president chairs that. I guess they came out with a space policy directive a couple months ago. It talks about the moon is definitely in our plans, but it doesn’t take Mars off the table. And so we’re working on, OK, what is that immediate step between now and Mars? 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, again, we have a rich heritage in human exploration. We were very involved in the Constellation program further back to 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, involved in aerodynamics. There has been data base development in understanding the aerodynamic performance.

Iannotta: So are you goint rename or go back to the Lunar Landing Facility name?

Bowles: Well, we’ll see. Right now — so that’s an interesting one. I always call it the gantry. I’ve been here 38 years and say my name for it is the gantry. We actually have a more official name that we use, Landing and Impacts Dynamics Research Facility, but that’s too hard to say so I always just call it the gantry. And it has multiple purchases; it was built in the ’60s through the Apollo program. But we’ve used it to do impact dynamics [inaudible]. We’ve dropped lots of airplanes and helicopters from it. We’re testing the Orion, done all of the Orion drop tests from there, both land and water, we actually have a pool on a part of it now where we do water impact tests as well as land tests. We worked with commercial crew providers. We’ve done tests for them. Boeing CST-100 was tested there. We continue to do DoD helicopter impact dynamic tests. I’m just going to keep calling it the gantry. That’s what I grew up calling it so, I’m going to stick with that.

Iannotta: So you just moderated a panel discussion on digital natives in this next generation digital transformation network that we’re talking about this week. What I thought was interesting was, there didn’t seem to be a lot of tension there between people working with hardware and people working with virtual reality, augmented reality, digital models. Is that tension actually there somewhere? Do some people see that movement as kind of a threat toward some of the hardware tests facilities you have at Langley?

Bowles: No, well there might be pockets of that. I think it’s not an [inaudible], it’s an and. We need both of them. Although, I always say, I challenged our people like some of our wind tunnel facilities. A lot of wind tunnels across the nation were built in the ’50s. That’s when a lot of the wind tunnels — our newest wind tunnel is the national transonic facility, and that was probably built I think, 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 in what you’re going do versus what you’re not going to do, and what you need. We don’t have enough money to do some key things because they’re nice, so I’ve challenged people, at some of our facilities: “Where can we trust CFD?” For the work we do in that tunnel, right, what is the range, what’s the envelope that we can trust CFD? And so we’re doing a test campaign right now in the high supersonic speed regime to understand, OK, “Where is that box that CFD works for us?” And if we have something that falls outside of that box, maybe we have our facility, maybe there are other facilities in the country. I think, again, looking at some of these facilities that aren’t used all the time, we need to start looking at them, if they are owned by the government, as more national assets. So I’m pushing that on both fronts. The timeline front and the kind of national asset front.

Iannotta: So, that could lead to closing a facility at Langley perhaps or using less of it —

Bowles: Yes. All of the above. Those are emotional and hard decisions but you have to be relevant and viable going forward. We have to make tough decisions sometimes. So, but 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. But hey, we don’t have all the tunnels we had 20, 30 years ago. We have shut down an amazing amount of tunnels. I should know the number right off the top of my head. It’s in the tens or twenties. I mean some of them are small wind tunnels. But we, we’ve shut down a lot of the tunnels and going forward, I don’t think 50 years from now we’ll have has many physical, big metal, big iron facilities as we have now. I think model simulation will improve but I think it’s always going to be some combination of the two. We just have to figure out what that balance is and do it smart.

Iannotta: Are you doing that like a formal meeting or is it just an ongoing discussion?

Bowles: A little of both. I’ve reached out to the Air Force and DoD on how we can share our facilities and we do a lot of that already. I’m assuming if we need to make it more formal, we can just keep it the informal [inaudible] on the CFD and trying to understand where it really works and where it doesn’t for certain classes of problems. I’m trying to get — it’s not just me, it’s our aerodynamics experts, obviously. It’s a multi-, very diverse team. So it’s got multiple government agencies involved. It’s got industry involved, it’s got academia involved [inaudible]. That’s what’s great about conferences like this, you bring all these experts together. I know last meeting and then last year we had a specific meeting, we were just starting to test this up one evening, about, OK lets put this plan together. So, it’s formal, informal. Events like this just help move that along.

Iannotta: Good, yeah, events like this really are important.

Bowles: Yeah.

Iannotta: So, I want to talk a little bit about your management approach.

Bowles: OK.

Iannotta: One of the things I’ve certainly read and maybe experienced a bit myself is, it’s difficult to really have visibility into your organization. How do you handle that? What are some of the tactics you employ to get that visibility?

Bowles: Well, you’ve got to figure out what visibility you need. You know, the fact that you’re not going to have all visibility at all levels. It just, you just can’t do it. I’ve got — like I said, we support all of NASA’s missions. We’ve got 1,800, thereabouts, civil servants; got another 1,600 on-site contractors coming through there every day. So you’ve got [inaudible] leadership team in place. You’ve got to clearly convey expectations and what their roles and responsibilities are and have an environment of trust so they will bring problems to you. I want to hear problems, not because I want to beat somebody up, I want to hear problems so I can help you solve them. That’s what I want to hear. So, you’ve got to develop a very trusting environment so that people know what they’re responsible for, you can bring your problems and we’re going to solve them together.

That’s — the success or the failure of the center depends on all of us. I tell the organization that all the time. So it’s a group sport.

Iannotta: Right, so you have experience in materials designs and you for five years you were director of the exploration and space research?

Bowles: Yes.

Iannotta: So, are those near and dear to your heart? You have to make an effort to make sure you’re looking at other areas that you didn’t notice or dream about?

Bowles: No I, again, it kind of gets back to a bandwidth thing. I don’t have enough time or bandwidth to meddle too much. What’s nice in coming to conferences like this, it does give you an opportunity to go and here some technical things more than I would normally hear. And ask some questions. But again, I’ve got a great team. I’ve got tremendous talent at the center. I trust them to do the right things. I will ask questions just out of curiosity, or if I feel like I’m adding value, asking a question somebody might not have thought about. But no, I don’t have enough time to get in and meddle, so to speak. And again, we touch everything, and so I try to keep it at a high level. Keep some knowledge across the whole portfolio.

Iannotta: Well I want to ask you a little more about human space flight.

Bowles: Sure.

Iannotta: So, is there a strategy in place or any kind of effort in place to look at the architecture you need to get to Mars, things you don’t have yet, in-situ resource utilization chief among them. And how what’s done at the moon could plug into that? I mean, is in-situ resource utilization at the moon relevant to Mars?

Bowles:  Yeah, so I’ll answer it in this way. So those — our Human — HEO — Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters is responsible for that. We support all those studies. I was talking earlier about systems analysis concepts and architectures. So understanding how different pieces trade off once you get to the moon, with the technology you might trade against the architecture going to Mars. We’re part of all of those studies, especially with the somewhat new policy we’ve got. So we’re involved in all of that, with that thing.

So all the things you mentioned are possibilities in some sense. Once you move away from Earth, you’ve got to start learning to live more on the land [inaudible]. All of those things will, I think, play into the future. One area I do want to talk about, we’re talking about Mars, specifically, is entry, descent and landing. That’s an area that Langley has quite a heritage, quite a strong capability in.

Iannotta: Is this where the —

Bowles:  Inflatable, the Hypersonic Inflatable, the HIAD. I’m very happy to say we just got approval for the next kind of step up technology flight demonstration in that. That’s funded out of the Space Technology Mission Directorate. Call it [inaudible] the acronym is losing me right now. But it’s basically a 6-meter scale up right now. The last thing we flew was 3 meters, this will be 6 meters — hypersonic inflatable. That’s starting to be the scale to land human-scale masses on Mars. You know, right now, with robotic exploration, it’s got parachute technology, really technologies that aren’t that much different from Viking in the ’70s. So I think that’s new, 1 or 2 metric ton, I think I’ve got that number correct. I think if you look at the human scale for Mars, you need up — without giving you an exact number, because it depends on the architecture and concepts, you’re looking at 10, 15 metric tons. We can’t do that with current technology. I think the HIAD’s the way to do that, and this next scale up flight in the 6-meter I think is very exciting, and will on the way to do that.

Iannotta: So when you do something like that, do you attend the tests? I’m not sure where that test would be.

Bowles: I try to. I try to attend as many tests as I can. In fact, over the past 12 months, it’s been pretty amazing. We’ve had two successful launches on the Earth Science side, so in February, last year, just a little less than a year ago, we launched the SAGE 3 instrument down at the Cape on a SpaceX rocket. That is now currently mounted on the outside of the International Space Station looking at the Earth’s ozone layer. So we’re collecting data on that. That was tremendous. I went down for that launch. Watching a launch never gets old, at least for me. And just a couple months ago, we launched CERES FM6, which measures the Earth’s radiation budget. This is something we’ve been collecting data on almost 30 years. Data continuity is a big thing. That was actually an instrument we developed, with contractors, that launched on a NOAA satellite, on JPSS-1 out of Vandenberg, November — I’m drawing a blank on it right now. I was supposed to go out to that, I was really disappointed something came up and I couldn’t go out there. So yeah, I try to go to as many launches as I can.

Iannotta: So the White House has proposed some cuts to Earth science instruments. I don’t know the exact impact on Langley but will you have a chance to sort of talk that through with the new administrator?

Bowles: I certainly hope so. I think from what I’ve read you know, science, not just Earth science, but science is very 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. The Earth science decadal survey literally just came out last Friday or something. And our new administrator said, hey, we should follow decadal surveys, so I think that’s very positive.

Iannotta: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Bowles: So that’s work to come.

Iannotta: Have you detected people in your Earth Science area concerned about the nomenclature they use, climate change and so forth, and what kind of conclusions they can draw.

Bowles: Not a lot. I mean —

Iannotta: Science is marching on.

Bowles: Science is marching on. Our Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen came and visited all the centers. Talked to everybody. I think he’s passionate about what we do. You know we have to deliver on schedule and budget and do good science. And there’s probably more good science than we have the budget in the agency to do, so again it’s hard choices to make, we make it our case, and means these tough decisions. But we have a pretty robust science portfolio I’m thinking people are excited about it. It plays into life on Earth, both in the near term and the long term. Yeah, I think people are optimistic.

Iannotta: Yeah, well I’m glad you could raise that, that’s an important area, an important part of Langley’s portfolio I’m sure.

Bowles:  Yes.

Iannotta: So I think it’s been a great discussion, Dave, I really appreciate you taking the time today and have a flight to catch later so I just want to say thank you and we’ll close it there.

Bowles: All right. Thanks, Ben, I had fun.

Iannotta: Great.


Aerospace America Editor-in-Chief Ben Iannotta, left, interviews Dave Bowles, director of NASA’s Langley Research Center. Credit: AIAA

NASA Langley Director Dave Bowles interview