At a Ronkonkoma research facility whose engineers have spent half a century laying the groundwork for hypersonic flight, the Defense Department is pouring $60 million into a wind tunnel unlike any in the world.
The facility, run by a unit of Alliant Techsystems Inc., known as ATK, stems from a company founded on Long Island in the 1950s by an Italian scientist who defected to the United States during World War II.
It has already achieved milestones in the pursuit of flight at hypersonic speeds -- at least five times the speed of sound. That includes a Guinness World Record for its role in the November 2004 flight of the X-43A, an unmanned vehicle that briefly reached Mach 9.7 -- more than 7,000 miles per hour -- making it the fastest air-breathing aircraft in history.
Now Washington is betting that a cutting-edge wind tunnel being built at ATK's Ronkonkoma site will help catapult such aircraft from the drawing board to the battlefield. The tunnel is called the Hypersonic Aero Propulsion Clean Air Testbed, or HAPCAT. It seeks to solve the mysteries of flying these special jets at hypersonic speeds.
Such aircraft, called scramjets (for supersonic combustion ramjet), have bedeviled scientists with technical challenges. Chief among them: keeping the engine lit amid a supersonic air flow -- akin to lighting a candle in a hurricane -- and coping with temperatures hotter than a blast furnace.
The research center also serves as a reminder of Long Island's aerospace past. Companies like Republic Aviation Corp. and Grumman Corp. formed the backbone of a thriving industry, designing and building airplanes in World War II and after. Grumman at one point employed more than 20,000 people. Consolidation in the defense industry and the end of the Cold War eviscerated these giants -- Grumman, now a unit of Northrop Grumman, employs about 550 workers here -- but left a cadre of veteran executives who founded many smaller aerospace companies.
The story behind Long Island's connection to hypersonic flight begins during World War II. Moe Berg, a former catcher for the Chicago White Sox and spy for the OSS, forerunner of the CIA, parachuted into Italy to rendezvous with scientist Antonio Ferri, who provided intelligence on Germany's atomic bomb program, according to the book "The Catcher Was a Spy."
Berg helped persuade the aerospace scientist, who had headed research at a wind tunnel in Guidonia, Italy, to come to America. Ferri became a professor at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (which later became part of New York University) and, in 1956, co-founded Gruen Applied Science Laboratories, later renamed General Applied Science Laboratories.
There, Ferri helped pioneer hypersonic propulsion, working on the crucial air inlet and making the first successful ground test of a scramjet engine in 1961 at GASL's initial location in Woodbury.
Ferri died in 1975, but GASL engineers continued fabricating scramjet designs and using wind tunnels to test them.
Among GASL's projects was the X-30 National Aerospace Plane, a proposed manned scramjet designed to fulfill the vision of President Ronald Reagan. In his 1986 State of the Union message, Reagan called for creation by 2000 of a hypersonic airliner that could fly from Washington to Tokyo in two hours. GASL's head count ballooned to 100 in the early 1990s to work on the propulsion system before engineering problems and spiraling costs derailed the program.
The roughly 10-second scramjet flight in 2004 of the NASA X-43A, whose guts -- the engine and fuel system -- were designed and built in Ronkonkoma, remains a hypersonic benchmark. The 12-foot craft was dropped from a B-52B jet and boosted to ignition speed by a Pegasus rocket.
Today, 43 employees, about half of them engineers, work at the Ronkonkoma facility. Their parent company in April announced a merger with Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. The name of the combined company will be Orbital ATK.
The facility has eight other wind tunnels, but HAPCAT will advance the state of the art, researchers say. In other wind tunnels, combustion products are burned to heat the air to temperatures encountered at supersonic speeds. In HAPCAT, scientists will be able to test scramjets in a flow of clean air, matching the air chemistry in actual flight, at temperatures up to 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the third and final phase of construction is complete in 2017, HAPCAT, funded by the Defense Department's Test Resource Management Center, also will have a variable nozzle that can accelerate the air flow from Mach 4.5 to Mach 8. Wind tunnel tests typically run at a set speed. Variable Mach numbers will allow researchers to "fly the mission," said Michael Celentano, director of programs and site operations at ATK's Ronkonkoma facility.
Meanwhile, Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi are pumping resources into their own programs.
"We, the U.S., do not want to be the second country to understand" hypersonics, Alan Shaffer, acting assistant Secretary of Defense, was quoted as saying at a defense industry conference in March.
America's global rivals have begun to crack the code on U.S. stealth technology designed to shield military planes and missiles from radar, experts say.
"As adversary detection improves . . . [the United States needs] to go to other technologies," said Christopher Goyne, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who has worked at the Ronkonkoma facility. "There's a feeling in the military that speed is the new stealth."
ATK's Celentano said, "There's more focus now because of what our adversaries are doing."
Wind tunnels provide an attractive alternative to open-air test flights, which are time-consuming, expensive and typically destroy the prototype. Computer simulations are useful but often inaccurate, especially when it comes to the thorny problem of maintaining combustion in a scramjet's supersonic airflow.
Unlike conventional jets that use a turbine to compress air, a scramjet uses the craft's forward motion. The duration record for scramjet-powered hypersonic flight: 210 seconds set in May 2013 by Boeing's X-51A, which underwent wind tunnel testing in Ronkonkoma.
Another engineering hurdle is heat. Blistering temperatures require development and integration of exotic new materials, another area of research at the Ronkonkoma site, Celentano said.
Scramjets are attractive because rockets, which can also attain high speeds, need to carry an oxidizing agent like liquid oxygen to burn their propellants.
Scramjets save weight by using oxygen in the atmosphere to burn fuel. That makes scramjets five times more fuel efficient than rockets, said Jason Tyll, director of engineering, advanced systems and power at the Ronkonkoma facility.
A vacuum sphere 48 feet in diameter towers in the back yard of ATK's site. To test scramjet designs, engineers create a near vacuum in the sphere on one end and pump air from high pressure tanks on the other. The hypersonic "test article" sits in a tube in the middle. Nozzles govern the air speed.
In a recent test, scientists gathered in a control room lined with video monitors and computers. Test engineer Vincenzo Verrelli counted down. "At 33 seconds, the igniter should be lit. At 34 seconds, hydrogen turns on. At 38 seconds, oxygen turns on. At 40 seconds, we actually go light the engine.
"Air?" Verrelli asks. "Air is a go," responds a team member. "Pressurized fuel system?" "Pressurized fuel is a go."
A horn blasts and the test is underway. The wind tunnel roars. A video screen shows a crescent-shaped fire in the scramjet engine as engineers extract data from a burn that lasts about two minutes.
Some researchers doubt that working hypersonic planes will emerge from the laboratory soon.
Celentano is undaunted: "We hope to make it a reality."