The First 'A' in NASA

There is a fascinating new book out called America in Space: NASA’s First 50 Years.  It’s filled with many of the compelling images you would expect to see from NASA — astronauts, space shuttle launches, Hubble Space Telescope pictures.  But there are also images like the one of Neil Armstrong standing next to the X-15-1 aircraft, nearly a decade before his journey to the moon, and one of NASA test pilot Bruce Peterson standing next to the M2-F2 lifting body test aircraft, and dramatic images of the SR-71B.  These images convey, much more powerfully than words, the important role that the first “A” in “NASA” — Aeronautics — has played in our agency’s historic accomplishments over the past 50 years.

NASA evolved from its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was formed by Congress in 1915 to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research.  During the past 50 years, NASA’s aeronautical research has provided breakthrough concepts, tools, and technologies to make air travel more safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly.  Some examples include:

  • Digital Fly-by-Wire (1960s-1970s):  NASA explored the viability of replacing conventional mechanical controls with electronic flight control systems.  Digital fly-by-wire technology is now used on many civil and military aircraft, as well as on the Space Shuttle, to make them safer, more efficient, and more maneuverable.
  • Winglets (1970s-1980s):  The vertical tips you see today on the ends of many aircraft wings reduce drag and therefore save fuel.
  • Airborne Wind Shear Detection (1980s-1990s):  NASA’s research led to airborne sensors that today warn pilots of wind shear hazards.
  • Engine Nozzle Chevrons (1990s-2000s):  NASA developed the concept of asymmetrical scallops surrounding aircraft engines that reduce noise both in the passenger cabin and on the ground.  Chevrons are being implemented on many of today’s aircraft, including the new Boeing 787.
  • Air Traffic Management (1980s-today):  NASA has developed several air traffic management simulation tools, including the Future Air traffic management Concepts Evaluation Tool, or “FACET,” which rapidly generates thousands of aircraft trajectories to enable efficient planning of traffic flows at the national level.

There is a great link on the NASA aeronautics website where you can click directly on areas of a commercial plane, like on the winglets, and find out more: NASA Aeronautics Research Onboard.

Today, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate builds upon this legacy and continues to develop new concepts, techniques, and technologies that will enable revolutionary capabilities for future aircraft as well as the airspace in which they fly.   Much of our focus is on the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or “NextGen,” a wide-ranging initiative involving six U.S. Government departments and agencies, as well as numerous industry and academic partners. The goal of NextGen is to transform our nation’s air transportation system so that, by 2025, it can handle the predicted two-to-three times increase in demand while maintaining safety and protecting the environment.  NASA aeronautics programs conduct fundamental research for NextGen in areas of safety, air traffic management and the environment. You can read more about NASA’s contributions to NextGen in NextGen White Paper (PDF).

As part of NASA’s aeronautics research role that contributes to NextGen, a recent aeronautical accomplishment that we are very excited about is the series of successful flight tests of the experimental aircraft known as the X-48B, or “blended wing body” (BWB).  We hope that the BWB may contribute to a future of cleaner-burning aircraft that produce less noise — such aircraft will be vital considering the large estimated increase in demand for air travel. The BWB flight tests began this past summer in partnership with the U.S. Air Force and Boeing. The wing of the BWB blends smoothly into a wide, flat, tailless fuselage, providing additional lift with less drag than a traditional circular fuselage, therefore burning less fuel and producing less CO2.  Because the engines can be mounted on top of the aircraft, this configuration also provides a potential to significantly reduce noise signatures on the ground. View X48B Flight Test Highlights (2007).

Now, every time that I fly, I think about NASA’s contributions to our air transportation system, and how remarkable our nation’s progress has been in creating a very safe system, over a relatively short span of time, that supports nearly 50,000 flights in a 24-hour period.  I am also excited about the possibility of a future system that safely meets our nation’s growing demand to take to the skies while ensuring that the environment is protected.