Because we do so much work for aerospace clients, we try to keep as up-to-date as possible with progress at the cutting-edge of the industry. That’s why a recent article in Time magazine caught our eye. In “Drone Home,” science writer Lev Grossman observes that a new generation of pilotless vehicles is increasingly substituting for manned missions that used to be handled by veteran fliers.
“More than a third of the aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet are now unmanned,” Grossman notes. “The military logic couldn’t be clearer.”
This logic extends throughout the furthest extremes of the wild blue yonder, from drones in combat to flights to other planets. Since the beginning of the Space Age, planners have been wrestling with the vexing question of whether the future of space exploration belongs to humans or machines (at least, human-controlled machines). That question, for the time being, seems to have been largely settled in favor of the machines.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first living creature into outer space, a dog named Laika; and in 1961, they successfully sent the first human into orbit, Yuri Gagarin. This set the first goal of space flight for the competing nations; going to the moon and back. Ultimately the U.S. would win the race, and each nation created its own goals for their space programs. Costs, risks, and benefits though would ultimately change the future of aviation and space flight. That cost-benefits ratio reached its ultimate tipping point in 2010 when the Obama Administration shelved NASA’s plans to replace its aging space shuttle fleet with an enormously expensive rocket delivery system called Constellation; leading years later to the creation of the new Space Launch System (SYS).
Now, human space travel is limited to shuttles to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules (and various suborbital projects such as Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship and XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx), and the most sophisticated missions are handled by remote-controlled vehicles, such as the Mars Curiosity rover.
Even the most advanced systems in the vaunted X Program overseen by NASA and the U.S. Air Force are remote-controlled vehicles. Consider three of them as being at the very furthest points in “pushing the envelope” that we have ever come.
• The NASA X-43 is an experimental hypersonic aircraft with a scramjet engine that has broken all airspeed records, flying as fast as 7,000 miles per hour. Its early prototypes are designed to test whether scalable versions can be stepped up in the future.
• Boeing’s X-51 Waverider is another scramjet-powered aircraft that uses its own shockwaves to add lift. It successfully completed its first powered flight in 2010 and also achieved the longest duration flight at speeds over Mach 5.
• The USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is a reusable unmanned vehicle that is boosted into space by a rocket and then re-enters the atmosphere and lands as a space plane. The secretive X-37B has been reported to operate for over a year (and one prototype is in orbit now).
All of these vehicles represent an unmanned future for aerospace, simply because they go where no human can take them. And that is an interesting notion to think about as we ponder the future of aerospace technology.