NASA Releases Look at Flight in 2025

A trio of advanced aircraft designs, commissioned by NASA, offer a glimpse into the future of flight.

In late 2010, NASA awarded contracts to three teams-Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing-to study advanced concept designs for aircraft that could take to the skies in the year 2025. At the time of the award, the team gave NASA a sneak peek of the particular designs they plan to pursue. Now the space agency, in the last throes of its space shuttle glory days, is making some of those designs public.

While each design looks very different, the space agency noted all final designs have to meet NASA's goals for less noise, cleaner exhaust and lower fuel consumption. "Each aircraft has to be able to do all of those things at the same time, which requires a complex dance of tradeoffs between all of the new advanced technologies that will be on these vehicles," NASA documents stated. "The proposed aircraft will also have to operate safely in a more modernized air traffic management system."

In addition, each design has to fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound, cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles, and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload, either passengers or cargo. "For the rest of this year, each team will be exploring, testing, simulating, keeping and discarding innovations and technologies to make their design a winner," a NASA release said, before teasing readers that final designs may still be a long way off.

NASA also recently sponsored an 18-month effort to visualize the passenger airplanes of the future. Instead of exotic new designs seemingly borrowed from science fiction, familiar shapes dominated the pages of advanced concept studies, which four industry teams completed for NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program in April 2010.

While the designs may appear familiar to modern-day air travelers, just beneath the skin of these concepts lie breakthrough airframe and propulsion technologies designed to help the commercial aircraft of tomorrow fly significantly quieter, cleaner and more fuel-efficiently, with more passenger comfort and to more of America's airports. Shape memory alloys, ceramic or fiber composites, carbon nanotube or fiber optic cabling, self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, folding wings, double fuselages and virtual reality windows are just a few of the far-out conceptual materials passenger planes in 2035 might embody.

"Standing next to the airplane, you may not be able to tell the difference, but the improvements will be revolutionary," said Richard Wahls, project scientist for the Fundamental Aeronautics Program's Subsonic Fixed Wing Project at NASA's Langley Research Center. "Technological beauty is more than skin deep."

All of the teams, led by General Electric, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northrop Grumman and The Boeing Company, provided "clear paths" for future technology research and development, said Ruben Del Rosario, principal investigator for the Subsonic Fixed Wing Project at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "Their reports will make a difference in planning our research portfolio. We will identify the common themes in these studies and use them to build a more effective strategy for the future."