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Transforming Flight

Building on a legacy of aeronautical research that can trace its origins to the earliest days of powered, heavier-than-air flight, NASA remains committed to transforming aviation by dramatically reducing its environmental impact, improving efficiency while maintaining safety in more crowded skies, and paving the way to revolutionary aircraft shapes and propulsion that opens new possibilities for commercial air travel.

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NASA is more than our nation’s space agency.

NASA’s first “A” stands for aeronautics. In this special feature, read about why aviation is so important to our economy and learn how NASA is transforming aviation for the 21st century in four key technological areas — all of which is intended to give you new options for air travel.

Against a clear sky, the vertical tail fins of three F-15 jets used by NASA are seen, some displaying a NASA logo.
Left to right: workhorse F-15B #836, “Mr. Bones” F-15D #884, and “2nd to None” F-15D #897 on the back ramp at NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center.
NASA / Jim Ross

Chapter 1

Aviation and the U.S. Economy

You may not have flown today, but something you needed or used today did. The latest electronic gadget, flowers for a loved one, life-saving medicine, or even fresh seafood for supper — many of your most important needs and wants were delivered to you thanks to air travel. The importance of aviation in our lives and to our economy is undisputed. Ensuring we have the safest, most sustainable, and most advanced aeronautics technology is the goal of our hard-working aeronautical innovators.

Airplanes at the airport terminal.

$1.25 trillion total U.S. economic impact from commercial aviation in 2022

NASA's Aeronautics programs focus on research, development, and testing of aviation technology advancements that will benefit humankind and retain U.S. leadership in a vital manufacturing and transportation sector.”

robert pearce

NASA Associate Administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

Why Should I Care?

Here are some fast facts about aviation’s contributions to the U.S. economy:
• 8.97 million flights by U.S. carriers worldwide in 2022
• 24 million tons of freight transported by U.S. airlines in 2022
• $77.3 billion positive manufacturing trade balance in 2022
• 2.2 million aerospace/defense jobs; 602,000 in aeronautics/aircraft in 2022

Three commercial jets taxiing on the runway.
Three passenger aircrafts in heavy traffic on the taxiway of Zurich international airport. Aircraft types on picture include Airbus A380 (middle). Two moving away, one approaching. Looks like the aircrafts are deadlocked in a taxiway traffic jam.
Getty Images
Artist illustration of the X-66 in flight above the clouds with the sun in the background.
Artist’s concept of the X-66 aircraft that Boeing will produce through NASA’s Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project.

Chapter 2

NASA is working on innovative transformations in aviation

Our vision includes faster air travel, new choices for moving people and cargo through the National Airspace System, and all of it happening more safely and sustainably than ever before.

Chapter 3

The Aviation Carbon Reduction Challenge

By 2050, an estimated 10 billion passengers will fly a distance of 14 trillion revenue passenger miles each year. With today’s fleet and operational efficiency, this activity would require more than 620 megatonnes (Mt) of fuel and generate close to 2,000 Mt of CO2. Imagine meeting that demand for air travel while reducing net CO2 emissions to zero by 2050.

Artist illustration of an aerial view of the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing aircraft in flight above a forest of green trees.

U.S. aviation goal is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

Chapter 4

Safer, sustainable air traffic operations in the sky

Increased operational efficiency brought on by innovative air traffic management solutions reduces fuel burn, carbon emissions, contrail formation, and ozone impact throughout the National Airspace System.

Illustration of airport tower and a terminal.

We are fully committed to safely optimizing flight operations to benefit the environment.

A team of researchers are seen inside the cockpit of a Boeing 787-10.
A view from the front office of a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner during a series of test flights in 2020 in which NASA flew a pair of research projects to gather data on aircraft noise and test an air traffic management digital data communications tool known as Tailored Arrival Manager (TAM). TAM is a system designed to detect a potential problem – perhaps bad weather or traffic congestion ahead – generate an efficient new course for the airplane to follow that resolves the problem as it approaches its destination, and then digitally transmit the resulting course change instruction directly to the cockpit. Results from these tests of TAM will help enable future flight operations to be more fuel efficient while minimizing delays, especially during busy traffic conditions. The collaboration with Boeing was part of the company’s ecoDemonstrator program.

Chapter 5

High-Speed Commercial Flight

NASA’s aeronautical innovators are leading a government-industry team to collect data that could make commercial supersonic flight over land possible, dramatically reducing travel time in the United States or anywhere in the world. At the same time, others are considering even faster, hypersonic air travel with vehicles moving more than 5 times the speed of sound.

NASA's X-59 airplane sits in its hangar with lights shining on it.

NASA is addressing the unique barriers to sustainable high-speed flight.


Reassessing a 50-Year Supersonic Speed Limit

Fifty years ago, the federal government banned all civilian supersonic flights over land.

The rule prohibits non-military aircraft from flying faster than sound so their resulting sonic booms won’t startle the public below or concern them about potential property damage. Officially put into effect on April 27, 1973, the ban’s introduction was strongly influenced by public opinion surveys in cities where supersonic military jets were flown overhead, and many folks said they didn’t like what they heard or the way their windows rattled because of the sonic booms.

Learn More about Reassessing a 50-Year Supersonic Speed Limit
When an airplane flies at or above the speed of sound, air molecules cannot move out of the way of the airplane fast enough, so the pressure waves combine to generate a large shockwave, which people on the ground hear as a sonic boom.

Chapter 6

Advanced Air Mobility Missions are Emerging

NASA is working with its partners in industry, government, and academia to build a system that enables the possibility of safely soaring over traffic in air taxis, providing medical and other emergency services by drone, and receiving packages at your doorstep using faster and more sustainable forms of air transportation.

Artist illustration of a rotorcraft cargo transport flying over the Loading Bay 3 warehouse preparing to land on the vertiport.

NASA research is focusing on vehicle development and operation, airspace design and operations, and community integration.

Graphic illustration showing regional area with a river flowing in between the two land masses. At the horizon line is a forest on fire with an unmanned aircraft flying towards it to put out the fire. The graphic also shows city areas, with urban operations for on-demand air-taxi, cargo delivery, airport transfers, high-density corridor, fleet operations, medical transfer, air ambulance, cross-metro transfers, package delivery. Also depicted in the scene are inter-city eCTOL, distribution center/warehouses, regional networks, rural operations, cargo delivery and Inter-City eV/STOL. UML-4 is depicted in orange. UML-3 is in yellow. UML-2 in green and UML-1 in blue.
Safe, sustainable, affordable, and accessible aviation for transformational local and intraregional missions is what Advanced Air Mobility is all about. This illustration highlights some of its potential features and services.
NASA / Kyle Jenkins

Chapter 7

Engaging the University Community

Teams of university faculty and students selected for NASA’s University Leadership Initiative and other activities are exploring transformational innovations in aeronautics, including high-speed flight, advanced air mobility, future airspace and safety, and sustainable aviation that relies on green technologies such as electrified propulsion.

Artist illustration of a lightbulb with the start of plant growth.
A map of the United States showing college logos.
This map shows the location of schools participating in NASA’s University Leadership Initiative, an effort aimed to help college students gain real-word experience in conducting research to help solve the key challenges facing the aviation community today.

Seven Rounds of Solicitations Leading to $199M of Awards

• 30 teams awarded to date
• 86 universities including 11 Historically Black Colleges and Universities / 16 other Minority Serving Institutions
• 584 proposals submitted
• 417 different proposing Principal Investigators
• More than 4,000 total team members
• 20–50 students per team

A college student holds a model airplane while talking about it with some high school students.
Research students from the University of Tennessee, who are working to design an ultra-efficient wing as part of the school’s University Leadership Initiative project, explain airplane control surfaces to students at the Regal Boys & Girls Club in Knoxville, TN.
University of Tennessee / Hans Sati Goertz

We're giving the academic community an opportunity to support NASA’s aeronautical research goals and provide students with valuable experience trying to solve real-world technical challenges.


University Innovation Project Manager

Let’s Fly!

NASA’s work in aeronautics is critical to meeting the nation’s goal of net zero greenhouse emissions in the aviation industry by 2050. We will do this by accelerating research and development of aircraft technologies that are more efficient and quieter, without compromising safety. Achieving this goal is also critical to the competitiveness of the U.S. aviation industry. Our vision and partnerships don’t stop there. Through ambitious experimental programs, including the X-57 electric aircraft, X-59 supersonic aircraft, and the X-66A Sustainable Flight Demonstrator, NASA is poised to transform the future of air travel.

Keep Exploring

Stay Informed by Visiting these NASA Aeronautics Pages