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Author: C. D. (Dan) Mote Jr.
December 17, 2003, at 10:35 a.m. marked the centennial of the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight by the Wright brothers. This milestone in aerospace history calls for both reflection on the past and some speculation about the future of flight. Among the many celebrations of that event was a half-day symposium at the 2003 NAE winter meeting that brought together an extraordinary panel of experts whose presentations gripped the audience that packed the Academy auditorium.
Richard Hallion, former Air Force historian, reminded us that, although the Wrights were first in flight, their lead, our national lead, was almost immediately lost to Europeans; the Wright brothers’ design was unstable and difficult to fly, and they were overconfident, unsuccessful businessmen. As Dr. Hallion pointed out, U.S. pilots flew the planes of other countries in World War I. But aided by the migration of skilled Europeans after World War I, the United States regained the lead in 1938.
The futurist, Robert Walker, who led the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, gave an unvarnished, visionary, and "high rpm" view of the future. "Anyone, Anything, Anytime, Anywhere" is what people aspire to in twenty-first-century air travel, he told the audience. Mr. Walker envisions nanotube-structured hypersonic aircraft, powered by antimatter, piloted by nanoprocessors, and with access to global positioning networks that will be able to fly anywhere on the globe. These aircraft will be as accessible to the public as general transportation networks are today. That sums up what the twenty-first century will look like in his view.
Innovator Alan Epstein of MIT, and an NAE member, reset the scale of useful aircraft downward with examples of 50-gram, 6-inch aircraft today, 2-inch aircraft tomorrow, and possibly even smaller ones later on. Ever think about a 4-mm gas turbine that can deliver 60 watts of power at a few million revolutions per minute? Payloads for these aircraft typically include cameras, sensors, and communication systems, making them useful for security, military, environmental, and commercial applications. Very exciting stuff.
Meyer Benzakein, an engineer from General Electric and NAE member, addressed the topic of propulsion, specifically the progress in gas turbine performance and gas turbines of the future (not included in this issue). He balanced strategies for incremental improvements to current technology with the pursuit of new ideas to push this mature propulsion technology forward. No radically new propulsion system was on his current horizon.
Daniel Mooney, a builder at Boeing, presented the next-generation design for commercial aircraft and discussed innovations in engineering and manufacturing (not included in this issue). And, although much has changed, especially in terms of efficiency, I was reminded that much has stayed the same in the aircraft itself over recent decades. A future in commercial aircraft that differs radically from today was not apparent. This cautiousness, possibly spurred by the pragmatism of a mature industry, contrasted sharply with the inventions of the Wright brothers a century ago and the vision of the next century described by Robert Walker.
Two additional contributions on military aviation are included in this issue. Michael Clarke of the National Research Council Air Force Science and Technology Board and a former pilot addresses innovations and individuals in the history of military aviation. He also makes energetic prognostications about the future. Harry Hillaker, program leader of General Dynamics and an NAE member, chronicles the development of the extremely successful F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Considered together, these presentations lay out the national aerospace problem. How do we prepare for the future and at the same time survive commercially today? The Wright brothers failed to solve this problem 100 years ago, but it still has not been solved. The recently announced national agenda to build bases on the moon in preparation for manned flight to Mars heightens the importance of resolving this question and not allowing the United States to fall behind, as we did a century ago.
Much depends on whether we believe aerospace is a mature industry, like newspapers, or a developing industry, like digital technology. Mature industries increment; developing industries innovate. Our nation cannot succeed in aerospace in the next century unless aerospace is a developing industry. New technologies are admittedly expensive, but failing to commit to creating them would be even more expensive. We have no choice if we plan to stay in the aerospace business.
The federal government will continue to play a major role in our aerospace future. As Robert Walker laid it out for the symposium, we need to take on traffic management, infrastructure, business models, aircraft manufacturing, military needs, workforce, nanotechnology, new engines, and hypersonic aircraft. This is a tall, but necessary, order. An inferior position in this industry is not sustainable for our country.