Tucked amidst the rolling green hills in Middle Tennessee, you might stumble upon a little oasis called the UT Space Institute (UTSI) in Tullahoma. This is a small campus for graduate students in fields such as aviation systems, flight test engineering, physics and mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering, and the executive director reports to the chancellor at UT Knoxville. The academic departments have links to UT Knoxville as well as relationships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
UTSI is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and there are banners throughout campus advertising that message. Since 1964, UTSI has provided support to the Arnold Engineering Development Center, a part of Arnold Air Force Base and the largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world.
Appropriately, we started our tour in the flight test engineering program, which boasts several astronauts as its graduates. Steve Brooks, associate professor (pictured at the left), and engineer Jonathan Kolwyck, who graduated from UTSI in 2012, talked to us about one of the flight simulators. They even let us try it out. The replica cockpit area has throttle and flight controls and faces three big screens that show a city landscape the simulated airplane is flying over. It was fun, and one of us (I won’t say who), “destroyed” the plane by flying too fast. The program’s simulators can be programmed to simulate any kind of aircraft with varying conditions such as ice on the tail. Commercial pilots are subject of tests to evaluate how they handle different and sudden conditions. Now that NASA’s space shuttle program has ended, some UTSI graduates in this area have gotten jobs at SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, private space flight companies.
The next stop was the Center for Laser Application, which is two buildings that house many labs related to multiple facets of engineering, physics and chemistry. Associate Professor Jackie Johnson and research assistant and doctoral student Lee Leonard (pictured below) talked about their work in medical application of materials such as glass. They showed us small squares of very thin glass that can be used to make an earlier diagnosis than images take by film, for instance in a dentist’s office, or even an MRI. The glass is half a millimeter in thickness. A startup company called GCaDD LLC, short for Glass Components and Device Development, was created around this technology.
In the second building, we got a quick tour by the center’s energetic director Bill Hofmeister. We thought the 3-D printer that creates products with metal powders was cool. Then he asked if we wanted to see something really cool. OK! He led us to a “clean room” with orange tinted windows that houses one of the fastest lasers that has ever been built. This laser can focus the intensity of the sun on the end of a human hair and drill a hole so small that 100 holes could be drilled on the end of a strand of hair. What would be the purpose of these holes? The holes hold peptides that direct how cells move, and the data collected from this examination aids research into things like tissue regeneration and how cancer metastasizes.
Then, Joel Davenport, associate director of lab research, showed us the large vacuum chamber facility, which simulates deep space and is used to test things like sensors that would be used in space. Research for the Air Force, NASA and private companies is conducted in the large facility or smaller ones. The facility is one of the best in the country in terms of size and capability. UTSI also has water and wind tunnels and compressors for aerodynamic tests.
Next we visited the Propulsion Research Facility, where Trevor Moeller, program coordinator for the mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering (MABE) department (pictured at the right), showed us the control room and then one of the J85 jet engines used for testing. The rack that holds the nine screens monitoring the testing was used for the control room for NASA’s Apollo missions. At this facility, they test the instruments that are used to conduct tests in and around the 3,000-degree exhaust plumes that come out the end of the engines when they are firing.
After an intense morning of test facilities and simulators and all kinds of engineering stuff that boggles the mind of English majors (at least this one), we had lunch in the campus cafeteria aptly called The View (pictured below). It overlooks a beautiful lake, and there is an outside patio right over the water. We sat outside with Moeller, Davenport and Ahmad Vakili, professor in MABE and director of technology transfer and economic development. They are all UTSI alumni, and as you might expect, they hope more people will learn about UTSI and its important and interesting research and education programs. They were drawn to UTSI for the high level of research conducted here, and let’s face it, the scenery is outstanding. Other pluses are the friendliness of the people, the collaborative nature, the small organization and structure and easy parking access. A fun group!
It was already a full day when we left in the afternoon and headed south to Chattanooga. Tomorrow we will tour UTC, and we got a great introduction to the city and university by alumni Natalie Roy (Chattanooga ’09) and David Martin (Chattanooga ’04, Knoxville ’06). We met them for dinner at Community Pie, a fairly new pizza restaurant downtown. If you are not familiar with Chattanooga, it has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last 20 years. The downtown is booming with restaurants, activities and lots of people, and UTC is located right beside it. Natalie and David (pictured below) were really excited about the changes in the city, and are enthusiastic supporters of UTC. We were pleased to hear they have been following the road trip via Twitter, and we hope you will follow us as we finish the trip in Knoxville on Friday. Good night!