In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of NASA Tech Briefs, our features in 2006 highlight a different technology category each month, tracing the past 30 years of the technology, and continuing with a glimpse into the future of where the technology is headed. Along the way, we include insights from industry leaders on the past, present, and future of each technology. This month, we take a look at the past 30 years of Aerospace Technology.

Aerospace technology — which literally comprises both air and space technology — has seen some amazing advances in the past 30 years in the commercial aviation, space, and military areas, including the first (1976) and last (2003) commercial flights of the Concorde supersonic aircraft, and the first launch of the Space Shuttle (Columbia) in 1981. In 30 years, we’ve seen robotic rovers driving on the surface of Mars, and we’ve flown on the first jetliner completely designed and preassembled on computers — the Boeing 777. We watched Sally Ride become the first American woman in space, and today we are witnessing the advent of a new era in space travel — commercial space tourism.

Commercial Aviation

The segment of aerospace to which Americans can most closely relate is commercial aviation. Most of us have flown on a jet airliner in the past 30 years, but many of us may not realize the extent to which the jet airplane has changed and improved over the past 30 years. Boeing and Airbus, the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers, not only have improved upon their aircraft designs in the past 30 years, but are introducing two of the most technologically advanced airplanes ever made.

Wind-tunnel tests were used to verify the accuracy of aerodynamic tools used to optimize Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner design for efficiency and stability. (Boeing)

In the late 1960s, Boeing introduced what would become the most recognizable airplane, the 747. Twenty years later, Boeing re-designed the widebody jet with the 747-400, the world’s only 400-seat airplane. Today’s 747-400 features technologies that enable the plane to be faster, quieter, lighter, and easier for pilots to fly. The 747 features a wing that is 6 feet longer with a 6-foot-high graphite-expoxy winglet that reduces fuel consumption and extends the plane’s range to 7,260 nautical miles. Other improvements include graphite composite cabin floor panels, structural carbon brakes on the 16 main landinggear wheels, and lightweight aluminum alloy wing skins, stringers, and lower-spar chords. In the cockpit, a new flight deck with digital avionics replaces analog, reducing the number of lights, gauges, and switches from 971 to 365. This also enabled the number of crew members to decrease from three to two. Crews also can obtain an update of the plane’s mechanical condition while in flight — information that previously was available to maintenance personnel only when the plane was parked.