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Economic Development, Done Right
image of the Daedalus 88 aircraft The Daedalus 88 aircraft is seen here on its last flight at Dryden Flight Research Center in 1988. The aircraft set records for human-powered flight that still hold today.
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image of Global Hawk UAV Through a Space Act Agreement, Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation developed manufacturing techniques that enable the company to provide much of the composite airframe for the Global Hawk UAV. These capabilities allowed Aurora to open a manufacturing facility in West Virginia that now employs 160 workers.
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One Company Is Demonstrating That There Is Nothing Mythical About The Benefits Of NASA Partnership

Greek mythology tells of the inventor Daedalus using wings of his own fashioning to escape from imprisonment on the island of Crete. In 1988, a similar adventure was launched, though in this case carbon-fiber composites, gears, and driveshafts featured instead of wax and feathers.

A year earlier, a group of students, alumni, and professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) gathered at Dryden Flight Research Center. Inspired by the Greek myth, the team started work on a series of lightweight, human-powered aircraft designed to reenact Daedalus’ flight. In April 1988, the 69-pound Daedalus 88 launched from Crete. Powered only by the pedaling of the pilot, a Greek champion cyclist, the aircraft flew nearly 4 hours and approximately 123 miles before winds drove it into the sea just off the coast of the island of Santorini. (If this calls to mind the demise of Daedalus’ son Icarus, do not worry; the pilot swam to shore.)

Setting distance and duration records for human-powered flight that are still unmatched today, the Daedalus project provided NASA and the MIT team the opportunity to explore new technologies for lightweight aircraft and high-altitude, long-duration flight. Also from this effort came the kernel of a company that—with the help of NASA partnerships—is producing some of the world’s most advanced aviation technologies.

Supporting Bright, New Talent

In 1989, John Langford founded Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation in a small office in Alexandria, Virginia. Langford had managed the Daedalus project and saw great potential in applying the technologies developed for that effort to the innovation of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for global climate change research.

Almost immediately, Aurora established a pattern of partnership with NASA that continues today. The company has engaged in numerous Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) projects with the Agency. These partnerships have provided opportunities for Aurora on multiple fronts, Langford says.

“We have bright, new talent, and these programs provide a great way for people to explore new ideas,” he explains.

Aurora, now headquartered in Manassas, Virginia, also partnered with Goddard Space Flight Center and West Virginia University through a Space Act Agreement. As a result of the partnership, Aurora developed low-cost composite materials fabrication capabilities and opened a manufacturing facility in West Virginia. This enabled Aurora to provide cost-efficient airframe parts for the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk UAV, designed for the U.S. Air Force.

Creating Jobs, Advancing Science

Aurora now has 350 employees and has facilities in Mississippi and Massachusetts, in addition to its West Virginia and Virginia operations. The company employs 160 people in its West Virginia plant, and about one-third of Aurora’s work force is dedicated to the company’s Global Hawk efforts. Aurora now supplies all the composite structures for Global Hawk, save for the wings.

“This is an example of economic development, done right,” Langford says. “You want to build up the economy across the country, and this was a move that NASA participated in that has been very successful.”

The partnership has also allowed Aurora to contribute to the use of UAVs for scientific endeavors; NASA’s two Global Hawk aircraft recently completed long-duration science missions to study climate change and hurricane behavior.

“Understanding and protecting our planet is a huge reason why taxpayers should be enthusiastic about NASA,” says Langford.

In the meantime, Aurora is continuing work on a number of UAV projects, including a solar-powered aircraft that may one day perform flights of positively mythical proportions—up to 5 years at a time.

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2010: