Temperatures are dropping, the leaves are falling, and the countdown is on to the busiest time of year for air travel around the nation.
The industry association Airlines for America predicts 24.6 million passengers will take off to visit friends and family during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday weekend, up 1.5 percent from 2013. Sunday, Nov. 30, will be the busiest day of the year at U.S. airports.
Even if you won’t be taking to the sky anytime soon, it’s a good bet something you’re using today– your cell phone, flat-screen TV – or the holiday gifts you’re buying online arrived as part of the billions of tons of cargo shipped on airplanes every year in the U.S.
The holidays reinforce how much we rely on aviation. And thanks to advancements in aeronautics developed by NASA, today’s aviation industry is better equipped than ever to safely and efficiently transport all those passengers and packages to their destinations.
“It is absolutely true that every U.S. aircraft flying today has NASA-developed technology incorporated into it in one way or another,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics.
Streamlined aircraft bodies, quieter jet engines, techniques for preventing icing, drag-reducing winglets, lightweight composite structures, and so much more are an everyday part of flying thanks to NASA research that traces its origins back to the earliest days of aviation.
It’s the same story for the U.S. air traffic control system. Computer software tools produced by NASA to help reduce congestion from gate to gate, on the airport tarmac and along the highways in the sky, are in place at Federal Aviation Administration facilities all over the country.
“That’s why we like to tell people that NASA is with you when you fly,” Shin said.
Contributions to aviation pre-date NASA
NASA’s commitment to leadership in aeronautical innovation dates back to March 3, 1915, when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – or the N-A-C-A – was formed in response to concerns the U.S. was losing its edge in aviation to war-torn Europe.
Just 12 years after the Wright Brothers’ first heavier-than-air flight, as World War 1 raged overseas, the U.S. Congress created the NACA in part to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.”
Subsequent research by the NACA’s engineers at its world-class laboratories and wind tunnels led to fundamental advances in aeronautics that enabled victory in World War II, propelled supersonic flight, supported national security during the Cold War, and laid the foundation for the space age.
Although the NACA in 1958 became NASA, which assumed responsibility for space exploration, its tradition of aeronautical research endures: identifying ever more complex problems in aviation and providing practical solutions using ever more sophisticated tools.
Research energized by a vision and an anniversary
Guided by a fresh strategic vision that organizes NASA’s aeronautical research into six new strategic thrust areas, and inspired by the upcoming centenary of the NACA’s founding, the next 100 years of innovation and ingenuity will begin with ongoing efforts to design new aircraft and engines that burn less fuel, operate more quietly, and generate fewer emissions.
At the same time, working with its industry and government partners, NASA also will continue to improve and modernize the nation’s air traffic control system so it can safely handle the two times or more increase in air traffic expected in the future.
NASA research highlights scheduled to take place during the NACA centenary year include:
- Testing of a large composite structure called “PRSEUS” that was manufactured using a new technique that shows promise for making major aircraft components stronger, lighter and less susceptible to damage than composite material now in use.
- Flight tests of a trio of technologies on Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator Program, including a new air traffic control tool that promises to increase capacity along approach paths to an airport and potentially reduce passenger delays; a system for blowing compressed air across the surface of an aircraft’s vertical tail that could allow engineers to someday design smaller aircraft tails that reduce drag and save fuel; and coatings designed to reduce turbulent flow over a wing by preventing insect residue from building up on a wing’s leading edge.
- Ongoing evaluation of a computer software tool that helps airlines find better routes to fly around bad weather while their airplane is already in the sky and on its way. Tests so far involving American Airlines and the FAA already show promise the tool can help save money in fuel costs and reduce delays for passengers.
- Flight tests of a flexible trailing-edge wing flap that bends and twists during takeoffs and landings while maintaining a seamless interface with the rest of the wing. The tests will help determine if the idea is a good one for improving aerodynamic efficiency and reducing noise.
“This only scratches the surface of what we have planned, but it does represent what the first ‘A’ in NASA is all about,” Shin said. “This is our mission. This is what still puts the fire in our bellies and keeps us motivated as we come to work each day, ready to tackle a new century of leading-edge research.”