Glenn Engineer Puts a NASA Spin on Baseball

NASA is known for launching rockets and exploring the universe, but some rocket scientists and aerospace engineers love to solve down-to-earth problems too. One of them is applying his knowledge to understanding the science of baseball. He isn't trying to give an edge to his home team. He's just using baseball to inspire students to exercise their brains.

Tom Benson, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, builds computer programs used to study hypersonic flight. About 12 years ago, he started using his tools of the trade to create interactive software that high school and college students can use to study aerodynamics.

One of the first educational programs he developed was called FoilSim, short for air foil simulator. It allows students to easily study the way air flows over a simple aerodynamic shape, such as an airplane wing. After working with teachers and students for several years, Benson realized that he could make the physics of flight even easier to understand by comparing the wing to an object that most students find a little more familiar. He substituted a spinning ball for a fixed wing. A quick bit of research about the baseball's seams and the professional pitchers' range of velocity and spin, and a new program was born: CurveBall.

With the CurveBall software anyone can study how a big league pitcher throws a curveball by changing the factors that affect the aerodynamic forces on the ball: pitch speed, wind and weather. These are the same forces that generate the lift of an aircraft wing. Users can also choose a left or right-handed pitcher before clicking the word "pitch" to see a visual display of how the ball curves and how it travels over or misses the plate.

"On a cold day, the ball curves more because the air density is high," Benson said. "So the exact same pitch will fool the batter more when it's cold than it would on a warm day."

Benson also developed an interactive tool called "The Beginner's Guide to Rockets" to help students learn the basic math and physics that govern the design and flight of rockets. Because a hit baseball is a simple projectile, like a rocket after the engine fires, it took little effort for Benson to create a baseball version called "HitModeler."

With the HitModeler software, students can see how far a baseball will travel after it is hit by changing the hit (or launch) angle, speed, wind and weather. These are the same forces that determine how far a rocket will travel after launch.

"If the air is thin, the ball doesn't curve as much. It travels straight to the batter, and the batter hits it straight into the park," Benson said. "That's part of the reason Denver's Coors Field is a hitter's park."

Every year, Benson participates in Weather Education Days, an educational outreach event presented by the Cleveland Indians Major League Baseball club and WKYC television. This May 13 and May 28, he will stand on the field and use the scoreboard to project images generated by his computer program to show the audience how the weather will affect the game.

"People who know me know that I love what I do," said Benson. "Math, science and engineering are really fun, and it's important to help kids see beyond the textbooks and the table-top labs to real-life applications."

While education is his passion, as a baseball fan, Benson said that the biggest thrill of the job so far was being asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at an Indians game in 2007.

"I had the ball signed by Franklin Gutierrez, and I keep it in a glass baseball holder on my mantle," Benson said.

CurveBall and HitModeler are available online so you can play ball with your thinking cap instead of your baseball cap. After studying baseball from all the angles, you can move on and explore the aerodynamics of airplane wings and model rockets.

"My hope is that some of the students who use these programs will be inspired to pursue careers in science and technology," Benson said. "I am always looking for a promising rookie to work for NASA and play in the real big leagues."

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