Marking 61 Years of Supersonic Curiosity
Sixty-one years after a sonic boom first rolled across the roof of the high desert in southern California, there are still things yet to be discovered about supersonic flight.
It was on Oct. 14, 1947, that a team of engineers from NACA -- the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor -- working with the Air Force and many others, watched from the edge of Rogers Dry Lakebed as Capt. Charles "Chuck" Yeager flew a Bell X-1 rocket plane into the history books.
Today, NASA aeronautical engineers continue to conduct research with the goals of making supersonic flight safe, affordable and environmentally friendly for faster commercial transportation around the world.
To that end, NASA hosted its Fundamental Aeronautics Program Annual Meeting in Atlanta Oct. 7-9, 2008, gathering more than 600 experts who are conducting research in many disciplines related to subsonic fixed wing, subsonic rotorcraft, supersonic and hypersonic flight.
"I was impressed with the high quality of technical papers. This meeting showed me we are making significant progress in better understanding of flight along the entire spectrum of speed, and in developing aircraft technologies to meet future air transportation needs," said Ajay Misra, acting director of the Fundamental Aeronautics Program, which is managed by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.
"The meeting was quite productive and it was great to see researchers from NASA, industry and academia gathered in one spot to share ideas and insights into their fields of expertise, with a common goal of addressing technical challenges related to the development of advanced aircraft that are enabling for the Next Generation Air Transportation System," Misra said.
Engineers discussed a wide range of subjects including reducing fuel burn, noise, and emissions for aircraft; developing alternative fuels; new aircraft designs for passenger airliners, safely raising the capacity of the nation’s air transportation system; finding ways to minimize sonic booms; and addressing aeronautics-related challenges associated with air-breathing access to space and entry into a planetary atmosphere.
"In many ways, the research underway today reflects the same opportunities for historic advancement experienced by the NACA engineers during those heady days of flight testing in the 1940s and 1950s," said John D. Anderson, curator of aerodynamics at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum and a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.
Anderson, a luncheon speaker during the Atlanta meeting, traced the history of research and breakthroughs leading to the X-1 flight in which Yeager became the first man to fly faster than sound.
"It’s one of the most important stories in the history of aeronautical research," Anderson said.
Experience with propeller-driven aircraft, especially high-speed fighters, along with theoretical studies in the laboratory and research using wind tunnels gave engineers of the early 20th Century knowledge of flight up through about .85 Mach, or approximately 650 mph.
But the knowledge gap between that velocity and the speed of sound, or Mach 1, remained elusive and was going to require an experimental aircraft, probably with rocket engines, so the X-1 was born.
When the X-1 pushed through the speed of sound and sent that first sonic boom across the desert, engineers were pleasantly surprised, especially about the fact there no major unexpected problems, according to Anderson.
Anderson was 10 years old on the day the sound barrier was broken, a fifth-grader living in York, Penn., who put model airplanes together. He doesn't remember when he first heard about the X-1 flight.
"There are many times when I've thought to myself how great it would be to have been an aeronautical engineer back in those days," Anderson said, feeling nostalgic, but also expressing excitement about what's still ahead in aeronautics.
"I suspect that 30 years from now there will be young engineers who look back at this time and think what an exciting time it must have been to be working on the concepts discussed at this conference."
For information about NASA's Supersonics Project, visit: http://www.aeronautics.nasa.gov/fap/supersonic.html
For information about NASA's supersonic wind tunnel facilities, visit:http://www.aeronautics.nasa.gov/atp/supersonic.html