The NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) is an aeronautical research center operated by NASA. Its primary campus is located inside Edwards Air Force Base in California and is considered NASA’s premier site for aeronautical research. AFRC operates some of the most advanced aircraft in the world and is known for many aviation firsts, including critical support for the first crewed airplane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight with the Bell X-1, highest speed ever recorded by a crewed, powered aircraft (North American X-15), the first pure digital fly-by-wire aircraft (F-8 DFBW), and many others. AFRC also operates a second site in Palmdale, Ca. known as Building 703, once the former Rockwell International/North American Aviation production facility, next to Air Force Plant 42. There, AFRC houses and operates several of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate aircraft including SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy), a DC-8 Flying Laboratory, a Gulfstream C-20A UAVSAR and ER-2 High Altitude Platform. David McBride is currently the center’s director.
On 1 March 2014, the facility was renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong, a former test pilot at the center and the first human being to walk on the surface of the Moon. The center was previously known as the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) from 26 March 1976, in honor of Hugh L. Dryden, a prominent aeronautical engineer who at the time of his death in 1965 was NASA’s deputy administrator. It has also previously been known as the National Advisory Committee for AeronauticsMuroc Flight Test Unit (1946), the NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station (1949), the NACA High-Speed Flight Station (1954), the NASA High-Speed Flight Station (1958) and the NASA Flight Research Center (1959).
Until 2004, Armstrong Flight Research Center operated the oldest B-52 Stratofortress bomber, a B-52B model (tail number 008) which had been converted to drop test aircraft, dubbed ‘Balls 8.’ It dropped many supersonic test vehicles, ranging from the X-15 to its last research program, the hypersonicX-43A, powered by a Pegasus rocket. The aircraft was retired and is currently on display near the North Gate of Edwards.
Though Armstrong Flight Research Center has always been located on the shore of Rogers Dry Lake, its precise location has changed over the years. It currently resides on the northwestern edge of the lake bed, just south of Edwards Air Force Base’s North Gate. Visitation to the center requires obtaining access to both Edwards AFB and NASA AFRC. The Rogers Dry Lake bed offers a unique landscape well suited for flight research—dry conditions, few rainy days per year, and large, flat, open spaces in which emergency landings can be performed. At times, the Rogers Dry Lake bed can host a runway length of over 40,000 feet, and is home to a 2000′-diameter compass rose, in which aircraft can land into the wind in any direction.
NASA’s predecessor, the NACA, operated the Douglas Skyrocket. A successor to the Air Force‘s Bell X-1, the D-558-II could operate under rocket or jet power. It conducted extensive tests into aircraft stability in the transsonic range, optimal supersonic wing configurations, rocket plume effects, and high-speed flight dynamics. On November 20, 1953, the Douglas Skyrocket became the first aircraft to fly at over twice the speed of sound when it attained a speed of Mach 2.005. Like the X-1, the D-558-II could be air-launched using a B-29 Superfortress. Unlike the X-1, the Skyrocket could also takeoff from a runway with the help of JATO units.