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NASA's Va. research center to host rare open house

Thursday - 9/20/2012, 3:25am  ET

By BROCK VERGAKIS
Associated Press

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - NASA's Langley Research Center will let the public in on Saturday for a rare firsthand look at the facilities that are helping shape the future of space exploration.

It will be Langley's first open house since 2007, when about 20,000 people showed up to take tours of the normally off-limits research center, which has played a critical role in the U.S. space program.

The Hampton facility is where the nation's original seven astronauts began their training and where simulators helped astronauts learn how to dock in space and land on the moon. Its wind tunnels were used to test the design of the space shuttle.

More recently, Langley performed millions of simulations for the Mars Rover Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" descent through Mars' atmosphere. As recently as last week it also was testing the impact of water landings on a mockup of the Orion spacecraft, which eventually will be attached to a large rocket and enable a manned crew to escape Earth's orbit for the first time.

The hydro impact basin where the Orion testing occurs will be among more than a dozen stops on the free guided bus tour, which will make departures throughout the day.

"Normally when people want to see what we're doing, our best advice is to go check out the Virginia Air and Space Center because we just can't open the doors that often," said Michael Finneran, a Langley spokesman. "So every now and then, like every five years or so, we like to open them up and really do it up big."

It's unclear how many people will attend this year's open house, but drivers will be waved onto the facility without stopping in an effort to speed up traffic. No ticket is necessary.

Typically, the only people granted access to such a wide variety of the center's facilities are employees, academicians and the occasional group of politicians or journalists.

Langley no longer provides tours to school groups, although it does have an extensive educational outreach program. The program includes a studio that will be on the tour that connects students to NASA experts for live talks.

Finneran said the tour and other activities won't just be geared toward those with a significant scientific background. At its headquarters building, children and adults can build their own race cars and design a balloon-powered rocket. An XBox video game will also be available for those who want to simulate landing the Mars Rover Curiosity.

"It's a lot of interactives," he said. "You're not going to be bombarded with a whole lot of technical language and instruction."

For NASA, the open house is intended to remind the public _ and their elected officials who set NASA's budget _ of the space agency's value. That can be a particular communications challenge at Langley, which doesn't generate the headlines and cable news coverage that space launch and control facilities do. To that end, there will be plenty of displays and people available to highlight the center's role in the space program, as well as the work it is doing in aeronautics and climate research, and how their work has also resulted in commercial spinoffs.

"In the scheme of things it's not that expensive for what folks get for their tax dollar from NASA. It's about one half of 1 percent of the entire federal budget, so that's not bad for doing cool things like landing on Mars," Finneran said.

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Online: NASA Langley Research Center open house tour stops http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/events/95th-tour.html

Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)