John Micol – Class of 1977
Senior Aerodynamic and Aerothermodynamic Researcher;
Aerothermodynamics Branch / Research Directorate
NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia

“One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” These famous words spoken by Neil Armstrong inspired a host of young people to aspire to a career in aeronautics. One such young person was John Micol, whose career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has lasted nearly four decades. He currently serves as a Senior Aerodynamic and Aerothermodynamic Researcher at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

“I was greatly influenced in two ways,” explains John. “When I was 8 years old, our family went on vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and I was exposed for the first time to the story of the first successful flights taken by Wright Brothers. In the museum I saw the various gliders they used for flying practice as well as a replica of the powered vehicle these gentlemen flew for the first time - actually 4 times that day. In addition, on July 20, 1969, when I was 11 years old, I became very excited when I witnessed the lunar moon landing and saw the first man set foot on the moon. Even after 50 years, I am still excited about that historic event. I’m also excited for the next generation of engineers that will be able to design and develop the machines that will take us to the Lunar Gateway, possibly in Cis-Lunar orbit at Lagrange point #1 (EML1) and then from there on to a permanent settlement on the moon and then to Mars.

“After graduating from East Burke, I decided to continue my education at North Carolina State University. I knew that I wanted to be an engineer and work in a technical area of expertise, but I was not sure of what type of engineer I wanted to be. Finally, I settled on an aerospace engineering degree in part because of an internship with NASA Langley Research Center. By working in the aeronautics and space research area, I was able to experience first-hand the type of work an aerospace engineer performs. I received my Aerospace Engineering degree from North Carolina State University in 1982 and began my career by joining the NASA Langley Research Center as an aerospace research engineer. In 1991, I also received a Master of Science Degree in Fluid Mechanics and Thermal Sciences from the George Washington University, Washington, D. C.

“As an aerospace engineer working as an experimentalist, I collect experimental data by testing scale models in wind tunnels operating at various speeds. I have contributed firsthand to the design and development of many air vehicles that are either flown to other planets or across our own planet. Whenever a flying vehicle experiences some type of anomaly in-flight, my co-workers and I are given the opportunity to experimentally determine the cause-and-effect of the problem and hopefully correct it. After doing so and using both experimental and computational data, we can modify the configuration so that the anomaly never occurs again.

“What I enjoy most about my job here at NASA Langley is the fact that the work is very dynamic. Significant opportunities to work on multiple flying configurations exist, and I have witnessed these vehicles mature from a paper design through fabrication and on to a flight vehicle. One of the most satisfying activities is to work on a product that one day becomes a real flying vehicle or a vehicle that enters an atmosphere like the earth or other atmospheres like Mars. I have been able to work on multiple flying vehicles during a career spanning four decades of research and engineering. I have worked on reconstruction of the Mars atmosphere using data sent back by the Viking Mars Lander, Space Shuttle, Space Launch System, Orion, Jet engine thrust vectoring nozzles and supersonic engine inlets, Scramjets, Quiet Supersonic Platform (Low Sonic Boom vehicles NASA’s Quiet Supersonic X-Plane), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV), Mars Science Lander (MSL), Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs), Aero-assist Flight Experiment Vehicle (for Aero-assist capture of Mars orbit), and others.

“My background is in the area of experimental hypersonic aerodynamics and aerothermodynamics (or aerodynamic heating as occurs when vehicles re-enter the earth’s or another planet’s atmosphere at high velocities). In 1991, I became the Facility Engineer/Facility Manager/Safety Head of Langley’s Aerothermodynamics Facilities Complex, a suite of approximately 10 hypersonic wind tunnels providing a range of Mach number from 6 to 20. A subset equal to 4 of these 10 facilities remains open and operational today and is known as the Langley Aerothermodynamics Laboratory (LAL). In 1998, I became the Facility Manager of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, a supersonic continuous operations variable pressure tunnel that operates over the supersonic Mach number range from 1.5 to 4.6. In 2004 to 2008, I was selected as the Assistant Head for the Research Facilities Branch, Research Facilities Services Competency, providing management for the large wind tunnels and test capabilities at NASA Langley. In late 2009, following an internal reorganization, I was detailed to the Ground Facilities and Testing Directorate office (GFTD, now merged into the Research Directorate at NASA Langley), becoming a permanent addition as the Technical Team Lead for Business Partnerships. In that job, I collaborated with Industry, Department of Defense, and other government entities to promote awareness, develop collaborative partnerships, technical guidance, and advocacy for testing in NASA Langley’s Research Directorate’s Ground Facilities and Testing Capabilities, whose overall responsibility includes operating, maintaining, and advocating investments and upgrades for a set of eighteen wind tunnels and three large aerospace structures testing facilities. This suite of co-located facilities covers a full range of speed regimes and testing capabilities from subsonic through the hypersonic speeds.”

John is very pleased to have contributed to two major projects by ascertaining their flight characteristics with the plan of one day achieving high speed hypersonic flight within the earth’s atmosphere. Hypersonic flight covers the range of speed from Mach 5 and greater, or roughly 5 times the speed of sound – 750 mph at sea level.

“The first project is the Space Shuttle, which flew to Mach 25 to capture its orbit around the earth and rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station. The first configuration was designated as the X-43 or Hyper-X, earning the honor of being recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest aircraft on record flying at a speed of approximately Mach 9.6 as well as becoming the fastest free flying air-breathing aircraft in the world.

“The second project is known as the HL-20, a lifting body configuration that produces lift not only with its wings but also with the shape of the lower or windward surface of its body. At NASA Langley I was part of a group of individuals that examined this configuration and developed experimental databases for comparison with computational databases and developed the flight characteristics of the vehicle for use in simulating its flight characteristics for 6-DOF simulators. Though NASA never continued the HL-20 beyond creating a huge experimental and computational database, the configuration was picked up by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) for transferring cargo, payload, and astronauts to and from the international space station. I have been invited by SNC to Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch, as a HL-20 honorary, someday when this vehicle flies to the space station.”

John has been a Member of the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA) for over 35 years and currently is a Senior Member. He is also a member of the AIAA Ground Testing Technical Committee (GTTC), Vice Chairman for the Future of Ground Testing Working Group, and Chairman of the GTTC Awards Committee. Other positions outside of NASA Langley include a Session Organizer, Chairman, and Steering Committee Member for the National Space Missile Materials Symposium (NSMMS) and Commercial and Government Responsive Access to Space Technology Exchange (CRASTE). John is a Past-President of the Supersonic Tunnel Association, International (STAI), a group of participants that meet semi-annually in both national and international venues supporting operations, maintenance, upgrades, and improvements to national and international experimental test facilities at speed above Mach 1. He serves as a subject matter expert in wind tunnel performance, operations, maintenance, and enhancements, and is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for INCAS, the National Institute for Aerospace Research "Elie Carafoli," the leading research establishment in aerospace sciences in Romania, which has more than 60 years tradition in aerospace engineering, flow physics, and applied aerodynamics, using state-of-the-art technologies and unique infrastructure of national strategic importance. He has published over 50 research papers on various aerospace projects and made a significant number of presentations both technical and informal to his peers, to the public in general, and to students and student STEM groups.

He is also currently Deputy Project Manager for a project titled “CFD as a Surrogate for High Speed Supersonic Testing” to evaluate the ability for computational fluid dynamic codes to capture the fluid flow physics for 7 challenge activities, all at supersonic speeds.

“Many people inspired me to become the best that I could be in science, technology, engineering, math, physics, chemistry, etc. I highly respected those teachers who took a special interest in my development and understanding in all of these technical areas of learning and those that I liked and excelled in doing.

“One of the biggest personal drivers for meeting the goals that I set for myself was provided by my immediate and extended family. I am proud to be of Waldensian heritage! My great grandfather and great great grandfather were among the first people to set foot on the ground that would become the city of Valdese, North Carolina, and the center of the Waldenses “New World.” I am exceptionally proud of this moment in their lives because it reminds me of those that first set foot on the moon and those that will set foot on the moon once again in order to establish the first permanent settlement there. Why does this ring in my mind as an exceptionally proud moment in the lives of my ancestors? It is because I am reminded that the Waldenses of northern Italy left everything that they knew and boarded a vessel for an unknown foreign place where they could build a new community and a new life.

“So when I face hardships in my work or in my home life, I am reminded of these hearty individuals who experienced their own hardships. These people are my inspiration; these people are the ones that I wanted to make proud of me and to be proud of what I could become and would become in the future. Because of the investment they made in me and the encouragement they expressed to me, I was able to complete my own goals and objectives to become an aerospace engineer working for NASA.

“I suppose that story leads to the legacy that I would like to leave behind. In my many years here at NASA, I have returned to East Burke High School and other schools in the area as a means of giving back to those that invested in me and my future by allowing students to see beyond their current environment and imagine the many possibilities and pathways for their life’s work. My goal is to encourage these students and impress upon them that each one possesses significant potential to become whatever their minds and hearts desire. To succeed, they must set goals and objectives in their lives that they can accomplish if they have the willingness and passion. My most recent presentation was to the STEM afterschool group at Hudson Elementary School. I want these students to realize there is a bigger world out there than the one which presently surrounds them and to encourage them to imagine the possibilities for future career paths that could lead to engineering, physics, math, science, and related subjects and to imagine the possibility of contributing to reach permanent settlements on other planets quite possibly within their lifetimes.”

Published February 2020

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