Just 14 years after the Wright brothers flew the first powered airplane at Kitty Hawk, NASA Langley Research Center was founded to figure out how to get aircraft to go higher, faster, farther.
More than a century later, it’s still at it.
Among its goals today is developing technologies to get planes bulleting in the blistering, heady realm of hypersonics, or more than five times the speed of sound.
“Imagine being able to build an airplane that can travel anywhere in the world in about two hours,” said Mark Lewis, director of the D.C.-based Science and Technology Policy Institute. “Think about how that would radically change the world. Think about the advanced technologies that go into being able to do something like that.”
Hypersonics, he said, makes aviation sexy again.
“Every once in a while, I hear somebody say something like, ‘Well, aeronautics is kind of a mature discipline, there isn’t a lot new in aeronautics, we know how to build airplanes, airplanes are kind of old hat,’ ” Lewis said. “No, no, no, this is still a really exciting field. ‘Aeronautics’ and ‘aviation’ writ large.”
On Tuesday, Lewis will offer a free public presentation on “Hypersonic Flight: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities” at the Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton. He’ll appear at 7:30 p.m. as part of NASA Langley’s monthly Sigma lecture series.
Among his credentials: Lewis is the longest-serving U.S. Air Force chief scientist in its history, and for 24 years served on the faculty at the University of Maryland, where he also chaired the Department of Aerospace Engineering.
He also consults frequently with NASA and the Langley center, and on Monday will take part in a Langley workshop to assess the space agency’s future hypersonic wind tunnel needs.
Robert C. Scott, associate director for aerosciences at NASA Langley, recommended Lewis for the Sigma series because he’s “well-positioned to frame current and future national hypersonics investments and explain the roles and responsibilities of NASA and the Department of Defense.”
Those roles don’t always align.
“While fundamental hypersonic research and development at NASA and the DoD is often performed collaboratively,” Scott said, “later-stage R&D in each agency has distinctly different goals.”
The Defense Department, he said, is primarily focused on weapons development, while NASA focuses on “crewed systems, affordable access to space and landing large payloads on Mars.”
Hypersonic arms race?
Lewis is well-versed in both civilian and military applications for hypersonics, and notes a growing drumbeat for next-generation weapons and defense systems.
Since the dawn of the space age, the United States led the world in hypersonics technologies, much of it honed in wind tunnels at Langley.
Then, half a dozen years ago, interest and investment began to lag, in part because of a change in leadership and shifting budget priorities, Lewis said. Meanwhile, other countries ramped up their own hypersonics research, including in warfighting technologies.
“I think it involved a bit of hubris in that we assumed that we were so far ahead that we could take a leisurely pace,” said Lewis. “I think we lacked a sense of urgency, frankly. And it caught up with us.”
In his State of the Union address in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted of his country’s developing hypersonic arsenal – highly maneuverable missiles that “can reach any point in the world” and destroy targets with “hypersonic speed and high precision.”
He claimed his new Avangard glide vehicle – designed to launch atop an intercontinental ballistic missile and soar above the atmosphere – could reach targets at 20 times the speed of sound and obliterate them “like a fireball.”
“There are no systems like that in the world,” Putin said.
He called them “invincible,” and alarmed Pentagon experts agreed.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee, also in March: “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”
In a CNBC report two months later, Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urged funding for space-based sensors to help counter them.
“Tick tock, people, time is running out,” Karako said. “The time for studies is over. Where is the plan to actually field some space sensors?”
Estimates are that Avangard could enter Russia’s arsenal by 2020.
The Chinese also have been very vocal in their interest in hypersonic technologies, said Lewis, and “view this as a source of great national pride.”
“It’s been suggested we’re in a hypersonic arms race,” Lewis said. “I don’t know if I’d go that far in characterizing it, but it’s very clear that hypersonic systems can have a lot of advantages for military applications.”
Hypersonics, in general, is very much a hometown story.
“It’s a field that really was developed and invented at NASA – and, before that, its precursor, the NACA,” said Lewis.
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was established in 1915. Two years later, it created the Langley center in Hampton as an aeronautics laboratory.
“Over the years, NASA Langley has done a tremendous amount of work developing hypersonic technologies,” Lewis said. “Case in point: The engine that we think is the key to flying Mach 5 and above is something called the supersonic-combustion ramjet, or scramjet. And most of the significant development work occurred at NASA Langley.”
Langley has several wind tunnels that operate at hypersonic Mach numbers, said Scott, including the Mach 6 and Mach 10 aerothermodynamic tunnels, the 8-foot High Temperature Tunnel and several scramjet facilities, including the Arc Heated Scramjet Tunnel.
In 2004, after four decades of research, NASA successfully flew the X-43A hypersonic technology demonstrator – the first time a scramjet-powered aircraft flew freely, according to NASA.
The model craft was launched from a B-52B “mothership” off Southern California, then was rocketed by a modified first-stage Pegasus booster to 95,000 feet. There, the demonstrator flew alone at Mach 6.8, or about 5,000 mph, for 11 seconds.
A second demonstrator later that year reached Mach 9.6, or 6,800 mph.
Those flights set world airspeed records for an “air-breathing” aircraft engine and proved the scramjet technology for future space and hypersonic aircraft, NASA said.
But it will take an even better engine for hypersonic aircraft to ditch the mothership and booster entirely and reach their full potential.
“The ultimate application of hypersonics is something that takes off like an airplane, but flies up to orbit more like an airplane and less like a modern rocket,” Lewis said. “If you could do that, many people would argue that you would dramatically lower the cost of getting into space and increase the accessibility of space.”
The key, he said, is an engine that can do double duty – a combined-cycle engine that could, for instance, start out as a gas turbine engine and, as the craft climbs up to speed, transition over to a ramjet or scramjet engine.
None yet exists.
Fast and furious
After a few years on the back burner, hypersonics is assuming centerstage again.
“I would say the message is out there,” said Lewis. “And, if you look at leadership across the country, especially in the Pentagon, I think there’s no question there’s a renewed sense of urgency.”
Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, now under secretary of defense for research and engineering, and other top Pentagon officials have called hypersonics a No. 1 priority, Lewis said.
This is good news for NASA – and in particular for Langley, considered the agency’s hub for hypersonics work.
“NASA’s investment in hypersonics had, very frankly, languished,” said Lewis. “And I think we’re seeing a commitment to reinvesting. ... They’re coming back at a pretty fast and furious pace.”
Want to go?
Who: Mark Lewis, Director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute What: Sigma lecture on "Hypersonic Flight" sponsored by NASA Langley Research Center Where: Virginia Air & Space Center, 600 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday Fee: Free to the public
Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich