Further Futures of Flight
An artist's depiction of a futuristic aircraft

The aeronautics contest challenged students to design a next-generation aircraft that would be more environmentally friendly. Image Credit: NASA

Make way for the flying saucer.

Long a favorite means of interstellar travel for science-fiction space aliens, the flying saucer could have more practical applications here on Earth. That idea, at least, was an honorable-mention-winning entry in a recent NASA contest that challenged high school students to envision the future of air transportation.

A total of 65 papers were submitted by 140 students from 50 schools in 15 countries. Sponsored by the Fundamental Aeronautics Program of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington, the contest supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

The proposal for a saucer-shaped aircraft was one of the more unusual of the forward-thinking ideas described in students' essays. The top-scoring papers featured "personal air vehicles," essentially family aircraft that would revolutionize air travel. Other students focused on larger aircraft that would incorporate cutting-edge technologies, with many participants basing their ideas around a blended wing body aircraft design. Some essays focused on ideas for subsonic flight, while others proposed ideas for supersonic and hypersonic flight.

According to the students, the future of air transportation definitely will be greener. All of the essays discussed the use of alternative fuels to reduce the environmental impact of flight. Ideas such as better composite materials, advanced avionics and alternative means of propulsion were also included in the essays.

"Overall, the top-scoring ideas were thoughtful and creative," said Liz Ward, the administrator of the contest at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "The students expressed lots of enthusiasm for their designs, hoping to see their vehicle ideas in production during their lifetime. If the student papers can be used to predict the future of flight over the coming decades, travelers will enjoy safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and extremely fast vehicles."

Many of the papers reflected the long-term potential of ground-breaking aeronautics research NASA is conducting today. For example, NASA is currently testing the X-48B, a blended wing body aircraft developed in partnership with the U.S. Air Force and The Boeing Co. Rather than the conventional "tube and wing" structure of most aircraft, the X-48B looks more like a triangular-shaped wing. The design provides higher fuel efficiency, reduced noise and a high payload capability.

Michael Donelson, a 12th-grader at Flagstaff High School in Flagstaff, Ariz., argued that a modified version of the blended wing design could be used to create an aircraft that would be an invaluable workhorse for air transportation in 50 years, serving as a successor to the DC-3 aircraft.

The triangular X-48B flies over a desert landscape

Students imagined advanced versions of current cutting-edge technology, like the blended wing body. Image Credit: NASA

Edric San Miguel, a 10th-grader at Norfolk Technical Center in Norfolk, Va., also proposed a modified version of the blended wing design. In San Miguel's version, the aircraft would be built of composite materials that would allow them to actually change shape in flight. "The ability of birds to maneuver skillfully and quietly has been the envy of mankind," he wrote. "The aircraft of the future will exhibit several skills adapted from nature itself. My design for the aircraft of the future is a Morphing Blended Wing Design. This design is the solution to swift and silent propulsion of aircraft in the air."

Awards were given in four categories -- team and individual efforts were recognized from U.S. and international participants.

The first place U.S. individual winner was 12th-grade student Tom Neuman from George Walton Comprehensive High School in Marietta, Ga. Donelson and San Miguel tied for second place, and third place went to Michael Mamlock, a 10th-grader at Monterey High School in Lubbock, Texas.

First place in the U.S. team category went to Jeffrey Lee, Daniel Oh and Jay Park of West High School in Torrance, Calif. The second place team, from Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, was Madison Friedman, Aaron Rusheen, Jonathan Batscha and Jared Hershler. Third place went to Matthew Calloway and Nathaniel Bush of Prairiland High School in Pattonville, Texas.

In the international category, the first place individual award went to Aditya Singh, a 12th-grader at Anglo-Chinese Junior College in Singapore. Second place was awarded to Muhammad Usman Anwer, an 11th-grader at Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan. Two students tied for third place -- Alexandra Iordachescu, an 11th-grader at Ovidius High School in Constantza, Romania, and Purmanun Gosvami Divedi, a 12th-grader at Emmanuel Anquetil State Secondary School in Mahebourg, Mauritius.

The first place international team included Ioana Ferariu, Anda Claudia Vladoiu and Luca Victor Iliesiu, of National High School of Computer Science, Tudor Vianu in Bucharest, Romania. The second place team was Adrian Zelaya and Uny Chan, from the United World College of the Adriatic in Duino, Italy. The third place team, from Ecuela de la Construccion, in Montevideo, Uruguay, consisted of Fernanda Laguarda, Viviana Lombardi, Erica Guerendiain, Santiago Marenco, Thiago Ceballos and Leticia Dominguez.

Making the futuristic designs described in the award-winning papers into reality will keep aeronautical engineers challenged for the next 50 years. Fortunately, thanks to NASA student projects like this competition, the next generation of those engineers is already looking for solutions to tomorrow's challenges.

Related Resources
NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Competition for High School and College Students   →
NASA Education Web Site   →
NASA Aeronautics
NASA Aeronautics Education
X-48B Blended Wing Body

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services