Pushing the Envelope - Without NASA

Round-the-world record bid under way, The Guardian

"Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett's GlobalFlyer plane took off into the clear Kansas skies today, setting in motion a world record bid described by his backer and friend Sir Richard Branson as the last great aviation record - flying nonstop and solo around the world."

Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, Mission Website

Editor's note: With all the current arm waving (a lot of it, perhaps, justified) going on about the "other A" in NASA, why is it that the most exciting stuff - the pushing of aeronautic envelopes - is now being done by the private sector? I don't think it is necessarily because NASA isn't doing this sort of thing but rather, because these people can do it without NASA. A message, perhaps, from the private sector?

Editor's note: I stand corrected - see This link about NASA KSC participation. This notwithstanding, the vast majority of the hardware, operations, and financing - to say nothing of the inspiration for this project - came from the private sector.

Send your comments to nasawatch@reston.com. Your comments thus far:

Exciting? Of course - it's a publicity stunt! Useful? Not even in the same league as the Aeronautics Research done by NASA; the last time I checked there was no commercial use for a flying gas tank, which means no jobs will be created to build flying gas tanks. Sure, there may be good lessons learned regarding fuel efficiency and the reliability of the CFD models used to design the airframe, but NASA is working on those same things right now. In fact, if you investigated this thoroughly, you would almost certainly find that the GlobalFlyer was designed and built using numerous technologies that were developed and/or improved to the current state-of-the-art by NASA.

It has been obvious for years that you are a space guy, so why don't you leave the commentary on aeronautics research to those who understand it. Aero research at NASA is supposed to benefit the taxpayer, and that is best done NOT by being exciting, but by improving commercial air travel, by ensuring the superiority of our military aircraft, and by creating jobs. It doesn't hurt to be excitingAND beneficial, but that combination is rare, and being beneficial is far more important.

Godspeed to Steve Fossett - I wish him nothing but success and a safe return home with a planeload of world records.

NASA's Vehicle Systems Program has a goal to develop new vehicle concepts and supporting technologies we aren't allowed to build prototypes. The program is being shredded in every budget cycle. NASA isn't allowed to do what the private sector is doing in aviation - this first A is almost gone not because we cann't do it but because Congress doesn't want us to do it.


Like many other NASA employees, I am following the GlobalFlyer adventure quite closely. I admire Steve Fossett for his daring and enthusiasm, as well as his long list of accomplishments. Your question: "why is it that the most exciting stuff - the pushing of aeronautic envelopes - is now being done by the private sector?" was answered by Fossett himself in an interview on Sunday.

From:http://www.virginatlanticglobalflyer.com/News/Reveal.jsp last paragraph:

When asked what the long-term practical significance of this flight is, Steve responded 'none' and caused laughter among those present. But Richard quickly added: "From Virgin Atlantic's point-of -view, we would love designers who make planes to make more composite-based planes. This is almost a complete composite-based plane - very, very light and very fuel-efficient. He then went on to say that design breakthroughs are often a result of some world records and could possibly make commercial aviation cheaper, more affordable, more fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly.

If asked the same question by Congress, OMB, the press or others, no NASA project manager could ever honestly answer "none" and expect to keep the project alive.

[Power for Global Flyer is supplied by a single 2,300 lb thrust Williams FJ44-3 ATW turbofan engine.]

From the Scaled Composites web site:

"Last fall under a competitive procurement program among jet engine companies, NASA selected Williams International to join NASA in a $100 million cooperative effort to revitalize the once-flourishing light aircraft industry in the United States through small turbofan engine technology. Under the program, Williams and its industry team members, which include Williams suppliers and future aircraft company customers, provide 60 percent of the resources and NASA provides 40 percent for the initial engine demonstration phase."

From the EclipseAviation web site:

"When NASA chose Williams in 1996 for cost-sharing development of a small turbofan, designate the FJX-2, under the General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) program, the engine was set to fly in 2000 in the V-Jet II experimental light aircraft designed by Williams and Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites. The EJ22 is the first commercial derivative of the FJX-2, which was first ground-tested in late 1998.

NASA says the GAP program objectives were achieved last June when the FJX-2 surpassed 700lb sea level static thrust in ground testing. The prototype engine weighed 85lb, resulting in a thrust-to-weight ratio of greater than 8.2 higher than any other commercial turbofan, NASA says."

From the DesignNews web site:

"When adventurer Steve Fossett sets off later this year on his solo non-stop round-the-world attempt in the Burt Rutan-designed GlobalFlyer, he will be relying on Chelton Flight Systems (Stand A735) for safe navigation through wind, rain and dark of night. The revolutionary aircraft is fitted with Chelton's FlightLogic synthetic-vision electronic flight information system (EFIS).

Bringing together GPS satellite navigation, information from aircraft sensors and the global terrain database already used by airlines for ground-proximity warning, the system presents the pilot with a computerised view of the outside world, with a safe 'tunnel in the sky' superimposed along with basic head-up display information.

The pilot can either hand-fly the aircraft through the succession of rectangular 'gates' that mark the tunnel, or set up the aircraft's autopilot to do so a capability that will be of vital importance on Fossett's 80h flight.

NASA evaluated the FlightLogic combination of HUD symbology and synthetic vision over a total of 945 flights and found that the pilots using it averaged 85% fewer errors in guiding the aircraft along its intended flightpath by comparison with those relying on a conventional instrument scan."

The point is, GlobalFlyer wasn't designed, equipped, and built in a vacuum. The above doesn't diminish the accomplishments of Rutan and his highly motivated and capable team, but would GlobalFlyer be exactly the same aircraft absent the historical existence of NACA and the ongoing contributions of NASA? I doubt it.

It would be very easy to agree with your statement above. However, I have a nagging suspicion that there is a heritage for the hardware and the design that may have had some roots in research done initially by NACA, and/or NASA. Perhaps the software used to design the craft is an improved commercial version of one that was pioneered by NASA. I'm sure that it would be tedious to trace the various aerodynamic, propulsion, flight control, etc. technologies to specific NACA/NASA origins, but my hunch is that if you could analyze the "DNA" of many aircraft in the air today - including Rutan's - there would be the signature that "NACA/NASA was there" to one degree or another. Indeed, in aerospace engineering textbooks today there are still references to NACA/NASA technical reports.

Regarding your recent observation/question: "why is it that the most exciting stuff - the pushing of aeronautic envelopes - is now being done by the private sector?"

The answer is easy - Starting in the early 1990s the NASA aeronautical engineers and scientists have been prohibited from doing the "right stuff" to move aeronautics forward. We spend months planning, planning and planning again to ensure that everyone on the "team" "feels good" about the $20K they hope to spend in the next FY.

So how did the first "A" in NASA get to where it is today. We have been "managed" by our "leadership" into our present state of irrelevance. And now the NASA aeronautical engineers and scientists must sit back and wait to be rescued by the same "leaders" and "managers".

On your Editor's note below:

You've singled out as "pushing of aeronautical envelopes" the around-the-world flight of a millionaire financed by a billionaire. NASAcould not try anything like that since taxpayers would be outraged if their money were used by the Agency to simply set some kind of record.NASA cannot do something unless there is a clear pay-off for our space program or our economy or our security. Congress and the Administration do not want NASA to grandstand. To answer your question of whether "these people" in the private sector "can do it without NASA"---that is, push aeronautic envelopes in commercial and military aviation safety, economy, etc.---I suggest you ask Boeing, Lockheed, Sikorsky, etc. The Europeans are beginning to kick our butts because their governmentslavishly support AIRBUS---in contrast to the anemic NASA aeronautics funding to help the USA's aviation industry---and when the day comes that Boeing throws in the towel and AIRBUS becomes a monopoly, watch the travel prices skyrocket. I will re e-mail you this note as a reminder when that happens. Rather than sending people to the moon and Mars, my first priority is sending them to Chicago, to San Francisco, to Singapore, etc.---safely, economically, quietly, on American-built commercial planes. Second priority is space for me. You and the Bush Administration apparently agree on reverse priorities. In 20 years we will look back and decide who was correct!

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 1, 2005 12:29 PM.

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