NASA engineer helps advance hypersonic flight

May 28, 2013

In the three years since he joined NASA as a research engineer, 29-year-old Manan Vyas has accomplished two major technical feats in the highly challenging area of aeronautics.

One will allow for more realistic and effective flight testing of space vehicles and high-speed aircraft, both for military and passenger use. The other will help the U.S. Air Force retest a hypersonic engine that previously failed to ignite and propel an experimental aircraft, a critical step toward advancing the technology.

Vyas’ work comes in the field of hypersonic propulsion—that is, speeds several times faster than the speed of sound. It is a souped-up version of supersonic propulsion—anything above the speed of sound—the 20th-century innovation that thrilled the world with the launch of the Concorde passenger jet that could fly from New York to Paris in less than 3.5 hours. Hypersonic propulsion is considered the final frontier of aeronautics because of the huge technical difficulties that need to be solved.

The team that Vyas works with at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland designs different types of hypersonic-propulsion systems, brings them into wind tunnels and tweaks them as necessary. When developing new technologies, simulations are a critical tool to help understand and predict how the test conditions may be different from actual flight.

Vyas’ first achievement verified what many in the field had long suspected—that the airflow in the wind tunnels that are used to replicate flight conditions has a chemical composition different from actual atmospheric conditions and leads to different combustion processes. In technical terms, he performed complex simulations using computational fluid dynamics and sophisticated chemistry, turbulence and heat-transfer models.

His investigation produced first-of-their-kind results and underscored that significant care must be taken when replicating flight conditions in wind tunnels and testing supersonic combustion.

“Manan’s work has helped us understand the differences between actual flight and the simulated environment, which before his work was unknown,” said Dhanireddy Reddy, chief of NASA’s Aeropropulsion Division. “He has only been out of school for three years and has made significant contributions to NASA Glenn.”

Jih-Fen Lei, director of NASA’s Research and Technology Directorate agreed. “Without his work, we would not have the confidence we need.”

High-speed flight has implications far in the future for reusable space vehicles, long-distance cruise missiles, greatly reduced travel times for passenger jets, and other military and civilian applications, said George Schmidt, deputy director of NASA’s Research and Technology Directorate. Researchers predict that use of the new technology could allow the 18-hour trip from New York to Tokyo to be reduced to two hours in airplanes reaching 15 times the speed of sound.

Vyas’ second technical accomplishment came from investigating anomalies that potentially caused the failure of an unmanned vehicle that was part of an Air Force hypersonic flight-research program. He was a key contributor on a small, expert team that investigated the complicated aerodynamics of a test flight, known as X-51A Flight 2, and its propulsion system.

After modeling several of the potential causes of the failure and ruling out other factors, the findings were reported at a joint Department of Defense and NASA conference on hypersonic flight. The causes of the engine failure have not been made public, but the Air Force, which tests the engines, is using Vyas’ research to help prevent the loss of another X-51 aircraft.

Vyas, who grew up in India, was deeply affected by the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the loss of seven crew members, including Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-American astronaut. Inspired by her journey, Vyas, who had moved to the United States in 2001, decided to pursue a career in aerospace engineering, hoping to serve his new country one day.


(Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

Vyas describes himself as “a typical engineer” who has been lucky to work in such an exciting field and to be part of “showing what tools will be useful for the future in designing hypersonic aircraft, and how the processes for testing and simulating these aircraft can be best applied going forward.”

Vyas has had a “high impact on national technical challenges because of a passion for his work, desire to help advance aeronautic capabilities of the nation, and exceptional effectiveness in analyzing and devising solutions to challenging problems,” said Mary Jo Long-Davis, chief of NASA’s Inlet and Nozzle Branch.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference

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