In a March interview, Southern Research President and CEO Art Tipton, Ph.D., discussed how the Birmingham research organization has been involved with space exploration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since NASA’s inception in the 1950s.
“We have a very active history with NASA and manned space flight, initially primarily material science,” Tipton said.
In 2011, NASA awarded a $28.5 million contract to Business Council of Alabama member Southern Research to support the Airborne Imaging and Recording System on WB-57 research aircraft.
NASA recently extended that association with a $9.95 million grant to continue supporting the AIRS system.
“We consider it an honor to be able to support NASA, in any mission,” Johanna Lewis, director, Program Management Office, Southern Research Engineering Division, said in a statement. “After the success of our initial AIRS project, NASA began to develop new applications for the technology, and we have been pleased to play an expanded role supporting NASA’s high-altitude research team ever since.”
After the Feb. 1, 2003, fatal breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia when it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, NASA came to Southern Research seeking a way to capture real-time video during shuttle launches in order to spot potential problems. During that shuttle launch, heat tiles broke off and allowed reentry heat to damage the shuttle, leading to its destruction.
Southern Research responded with designing AIRS turrets on WB-57 aircraft that utilize high-definition video to record launches as far away as 25 miles and well past booster separation at 146,000 feet.
The technology was developed in a Southern Research lab and designed to affix to the nose cap of a WB-57 aircraft. The WB-57 (the W is for weather) was originally designed as a B-57 bomber.
NASA began to retrofit the planes in the 1960s for science and research purposes. Today, there are three WB-57s in service and they are frequently flown at heights exceeding 12 miles and at speeds reaching 472 mph.
Since the AIRS-equipped WB-57s were first used to provide full-motion video of the post-Columbia shuttle launch in 2005, they have since monitored numerous launches and re-entries for government agencies such as NASA and Department of Defense as well as commercial launches such as SpaceX.
The AIRS technology also has been used to conduct atmospheric research missions, high-altitude mapping, remote sensing operations, and more, Southern Research said.
The WB-57 fleet is also used by NASA to conduct high-altitude training for astronauts.
“When it comes to working on and around the issues of space flight, there is endless possibility but no room for error,” said Michael D. Johns, Ph.D., vice president of the Engineering Division at Southern Research. “In order to be successful throughout the years, our team has embraced each new challenge with a level of dedication and professional intrigue that has allowed us to advance the AIRS technology and add value as partners in the expansion of the WB-57 program. The fact that NASA has honored us with a second sole source contract to continue this work is a signal that we have yet to cross the final frontier.”