The Future of Flight
An artist's depiction of a fictional, futuristic aircraft
Who better to predict the future than those who will be making it happen?

High school students from around the world recently shared their visions of the future of flight for NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's 2006-2007 student competition, "Air Transportation in 2057." Based on the results of that competition, the future is very bright, both in terms of those visions and the quality of the students who will work to make them a reality.

Image to right: The aeronautics contest challenged students to envision what air transportation will be like 50 years in the future. Credit: NASA

Almost 90 essays were submitted in the contest, from all across America and from six foreign nations. Entries were divided into individual and team efforts, and into U.S. and international categories. More than 130 students, representing more than 40 institutions, participated in the contest.

So what will the future hold for air transportation?

"The problem of fuel efficiency will be virtually eliminated within the near future by research in better fuels and more effective flight trajectories," wrote Tyler Pennington, Morgan Harless and Jared Hagan, students at Linwood Holton Governor's School in Abingdon, Va. "Airliners will be able to tremendously reduce fuel consumption through the use of parabolic flight trajectories. The pilot will climb to a sufficient altitude and then use a descent pattern to allow gravitational energy to propel the plane."

Among the team's other predictions were commercial airliners that could carry more than 1,500 passengers, jet engines far more efficient and powerful than current models, and advanced military aircraft more versatile than their modern counterparts. Bans on cell phone use during flight, the team predicts, will become a thing of the past as modern wiring on aircraft is replaced with fiber-optic "fly-by-light" control systems.

Those who prefer their travel to be a little more long-distance, the Linwood Holton team wrote, will have the opportunity to literally reach for the stars. "The most fantastic possibility for aviation in 50 years is the dawn of interstellar space travel," the team wrote. "The opening up of the stars will become possible through the usage of antimatter particles as a fuel."

Jared Hagan, Tyler Pennington and Morgan Harless sit at a desk
Pennington, Harless and Hagan took first place in the division for U.S. teams, and will share a cash prize of $1,000. Teams from Midwood High School in New York, N.Y., took second place and honorable mention, and Lourdes High School in Rochester, Minn., claimed third place.

Image to left: Jared Hagan (from left), Tyler Pennington and Morgan Harless, who attend different schools, collaborated electronically on their essay. Credit: NASA

Working on the essay, Hagan said, was an incredible learning experience. "We learned a lot, especially about stuff like the antimatter and that sort of thing, and the future possibility of interstellar travel," he said. "We didn’t realize just how feasible some of this stuff actually was. It just kind of blew us away. We had read a lot of science fiction, but when we actually started going and researching the science, it was awe-inspiring, really."

According to Jacob Monat, of Kee High School, in Lansing, Iowa, future commercial aircraft will need to be faster to keep up with increasing demand for flights.

"By 2057, the demand for air travel will increase by 900 percent," wrote Monat, a senior who has entered the contest throughout his high school career, and has claimed first place in the past. "In order to keep up with the astounding need, the aerospace industry must quickly develop larger, faster, more efficient planes. High-capacity, supersonic aircraft are the solution to the enormous influx of air passengers within the next 50 years. The pioneering body design of the blended wing body, high-efficiency propulsion systems, and sonic boom reduction technologies will make supersonic passenger transport a reality."

While passenger air transportation will have to be fast, cargo shipping will be faster still, Monat predicts. Intercontinental shipping will be done by unmanned aircraft capable of traveling at seven times the speed of sound. "The tremendous speed will enable a shipment of goods to travel from Tokyo to New York City in one hour and fifteen minutes," Monat wrote. "The scorching speed of future shipping aircraft will revolutionize international commerce and launch global trading technology far into the next several centuries." Other predictions in his paper include fuel-cell-powered aircraft and common use of personal air vehicles.

Monat won third place in the U.S. individual category this year. First-place winner Sarah Vaden, of the Roanoke Valley Governor's School in Virginia, won $1,000. Michael Donelson, of Flagstaff High School in Arizona, and Meghan Ferrall, of Freedom High School in Tampa, Fla., tied for second place. Honorable mention awards went to Tamara Cottam, from Lexington Catholic High School in Kentucky, Sam Rochelle, from Cary Academy in North Carolina, and Daniel Ho, from the High School of Economics and Finance in New York, N.Y.

Monat plans to be one of the people who helps make that future take shape. "I've wanted to be an aerospace engineer since fourth grade," he said. "These competitions mostly just reaffirmed my career path and gave me the confidence that I really chose the right career for me ... I am now very certain that I have picked the right career for me. And I'm very excited to start my college career, so I can move on in aerospace engineering."

Student team members Ndlovu, Kobe and Mthembu
One international team, in particular, brought a global perspective to the project. "Aircraft has a very significant contribution to the Global Threat Matrix: The exhaustion of valuable resources, Global Pollution (and) The Global Security Threat," wrote students from Lotus Gardens High School in Pretoria, South Africa. "All nations have to put political differences aside and work together on Global basis to combat existing threats to both Earth and Mankind."

Image to right: Students (from left), Nombuso Ndlovu, Shoki Kobe and Lerato Mthembu made up the winning South African team. Credit: At Meyer

According to the South African team, "The only option available is a Global Digital Facility that is sustained and manned by all nations. Scientists and Aerospace crews have to work in tandem to ensure success. The advent of the hi-intelligence robot crew of aerospace vehicles is a factor that saves money and ensure(s) technically correct actions at all times in the high-altitude and zero-atmosphere environments where humans ... are not able to operate."

Contest officials said they have been impressed with the consistently strong performance of the South African team, who live in an area where they have limited access to computer technology.

The team's sponsor, At Meyer, explained, "These kids live and go to school in disadvantaged school communities. They do not have computers at home, and their use of (information technology) is extremely limited. Our contact with them is extra-curricular, where we teach them practical aviation science. The key to their achievement is their commitment to better themselves under difficult circumstances. Their passion for aviation is also an important factor.

"We are very grateful for NASA, who offers to our children the opportunity to compete in the global arena with students from all continents," Meyer said. "The NASA competition is now our national international aerospace design contest, and we will in the future select from all our provinces the top teams to participate in the NASA contest. They then receive national South African colors for their participation."

The Lotus Gardens team took first place in the international team division. Second place went to a team from Lahore Grammar School in Lahore, Pakistan, and third place went to a team from Ovidius High School in Constantza, Romania. In the international individual competition, first place went to Emma Peterson, of Burnsview Secondary School, British Columbia, Canada. Second place was won by Yashraj Khaitan, of Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Mumbai, India, and third place went to Ketan Sharma, of Amity International School, Haryana, India. International winners received trophies and certificates, but were not eligible for cash prizes.

Related Resources
+ Aeronautics Student Competitions

+ NASA Aeronautics Mission Directorate

+ NASA Education Web site
Alexandra Iordachescu, a member of the third-place Romanian team, wrote a note to the contest organizers after receiving the trophy for her performance. "We were very happy to receive the trophies and certificates," she wrote. "The package arrived on June 1, so it was the best gift I have ever received on Children's Day! Because this competition is finally over now, I must tell you that this was the best contest I ever participated in! Congratulations for your remarkable work!"

Through the aeronautics competition, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation’s education. It is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific and technical missions.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services