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Curious Universe: Building Highways in the Sky

Season 1Aug 2, 2021

When you think of NASA, you probably think about outer space. But the first “A” in NASA - aeronautics - means we’re busy crafting a lot closer to home. Aerospace engineers Shivanjli Sharma, David Zahn, and Mike Guminsky are hard at work inventing and testing new ways to fly.

NASA's Curious Universe

NASA’s Curious Universe

Season 3, Episode 4: “Building Highways in the Sky”

Tentative Release Date: Monday, August 2

Estimated Run Time: 19:09

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. Join NASA astronauts, scientists and engineers on a new adventure each week — all you need is your curiosity. Fly over the Antarctic tundra, explore faraway styrofoam planets, and journey deep into our solar system. First-time space explorers welcome.

About the Episode

When you think of NASA, you probably think about outer space. But the first “A” in NASA – aeronautics – means we’re busy crafting a lot closer to home. Aerospace engineers Shivanjli Sharma, David Zahn, and Mike Guminsky are hard at work inventing and testing new ways to fly.



NASA's Curious Universe

[SONG: Softly Softly Underscore by Moenks Wright]

Shivanjli Sharma

I grew up in Hounslow, United Kingdom, just outside of London, about 30 minutes outside of London. You could sit on my grandfather’s roof and actually watch planes as they came in to land at Heathrow Airport.

[Begin airplane flying sound]

Shivanjli Sharma

They were so close, not only would the house shake, but you could actually read the tail numbers, the little letters that are on the back of the aircraft, you could actually read them. That’s how close they were. I was fascinated by these aircraft. How the heck are these vehicles taking off and flying?

[End airplane flying sound]

Shivanjli Sharma

And that’s really, that curiosity is what sparked my interest in understanding aviation. Knowing that the way things are today don’t have to be the way things are in the future. We apply it to science, but that’s also true for so many different realms of our life. The fact that we have the power to implement the things that we learn in our daily lives. We can change things, and I think that’s really important.

[Theme Song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m Padi Boyd, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide!

HOST PADI BOYD: It’s incredible to think about how much transportation has evolved in the past few centuries. A journey that once took months with wagons or ships, now takes a few days in a car or train…or a few hours on an airplane.

HOST PADI BOYD:Our cities had to be smaller when everyone walked or rode horses. Now, with cars, buses, metro stations, and trains, we can build bigger communities and explore our surroundings more easily.

HOST PADI BOYD: But what about the next step in transportation?

HOST PADI BOYD: In addition to our work exploring space, NASA has an aeronautics division, which studies the science of flight. These scientists and engineers are looking at ways to test, improve, and invent new ways to get around.

HOST PADI BOYD: What if, in the future, instead of taking a taxi or subway train to get around short distances, you could ride in a flying car?

[SONG: Do You Wanna Fly Instrumental by Matthias Pothier]

Shivanjli Sharma

Hi, everyone. My name is Shivanjli Sharma, I am the National Campaign deputy lead. And I currently serve as an Aerospace Research engineer based out of NASA Ames.

HOST PADI BOYD: Shivanjli is working on the Advanced Air Mobility Project, which is partnering with companies across the country to develop and test new aircraft vehicles.

HOST PADI BOYD: In the next few decades, we might be able to take those vehicles from place to place.

Shivanjli Sharma

So this is actually a fairly new project in terms of NASA standards. Several years ago, individuals, researchers, engineers started to see how electric motors could be utilized for new propulsion systems, new types of configurations for how these vehicles were structured. And we noticed that there were a number of gaps that remained to be addressed to really enable this new type of aviation.

HOST PADI BOYD: It will be a while before these flying, electric vehicles are released. We’re still not sure exactly what this new system of transportation will look like!

HOST PADI BOYD: But Shivanjli and her team are working to figure it out.

HOST PADI BOYD: As far as this development phase goes, there are a couple of things we do know about how these vehicles will function.

Shivanjli Sharma

They are runway independent, meaning just like a helicopter, they could take off and land vertically. So you can imagine these vehicles taking off and landing on rooftops. And this new mode of aviation, this evolution in aviation will really change the way that we move people and goods.

HOST PADI BOYD: These maneuverable aircraft could mean big changes for how we get around…but with such big shifts in transportation, there are a lot of things to consider.

Shivanjli Sharma

So what is the framework for how they’ll operate? How will they access and integrate into our airspace? What other things will we need to enable these aircraft to fly every day? So infrastructure. Will they need a landing pad? What type of sensors or automation might be needed at the vertiport, the area in which they’ll land on the ground? And how will airspace systems evolve to incorporate these new aircraft? All of those pieces are what NASA is focused on so we can really make this type of aviation transport a reality.

HOST PADI BOYD: Imagine with me what these vehicles mean – a future where we aren’t just traveling along roads, train lines, or long distance flights. This would be like calling a cab and instead of a car along the road, a helicopter flies you up into the skies.

[SONG: Clocking Out Underscore by Lemmon Rudd]

HOST PADI BOYD: This idea used to be pure fiction…but with research, planning, and a lot of innovative thinking, it could be our reality.

Shivanjli Sharma

If you are thinking about traveling from your home to some location, whether it’s a ballpark or a concert venue, potentially you could take one of these vehicles just like you would get an Uber or a Lyft today. Except you wouldn’t be sitting in normal traffic, you would be flying in one of these vehicles.

Shivanjli Sharma

If we think about goods being transported, if we have autonomous, electric cargo vehicles, you’ll be able to have goods being transported much more efficiently. And this will change the way in which we receive the things that we buy on Amazon every day.

HOST PADI BOYD: NASA engineers are also testing autonomous flight, or vehicles that can fly without a pilot. This would cut down on some of the risk factors often involved in getting important services into hard to reach areas.

Shivanjli Sharma

But there’s other I think real important aspects of Advanced Air Mobility and those are associated with emergency medical services and fire services. Having these vehicles fly in being able to transport for a medical purpose an individual or, or some sort of medical equipment or goods, that’s going to be a key factor of Advanced Air Mobility.

Shivanjli Sharma

The other factor is firefighting. So I’m based in California and we’ve had quite a fire season as of late. Being able to fight fires with these types of new vehicles that may be able to fly into fire areas without potentially putting a pilot’s life at risk is going to be a key innovation. So I think there’s a number of areas that this will change our lives, whether it’s thinking about us going from point A to point B, but also in terms of our community and our safety services and our public services that we rely on every day.

HOST PADI BOYD: When you think about it…

[Car starting noise, traffic noise begins]

HOST PADI BOYD: There are a lot of things that keep us safe when we’re driving our cars down the road: driver’s licenses, crosswalks, traffic lights…

[Car honk]

HOST PADI BOYD: We’ll need similar safety precautions while navigating through the air, too.

[SONG: Bubble Underscore by Oliver]

HOST PADI BOYD: Without lanes and road signs, and with the added dimension of height or elevation that we don’t have to worry about on the ground, how will we keep vehicles on track as they fly through the sky?

David Zahn

My name is David Zahn, I work in the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and I function as a bit of a liaison between NASA and the FAA for their expertise and resources for our research in Urban Air Mobility.

David Zahn

So I build roadways in the sky. So when we talk about airspace architecture, those on and off ramps, from the highways to landing sites, they have stop signs, they have speed zones, we have street lights. There’s license plates, right, and driver’s license for vehicles. And we make all these vehicles not hit each other.

HOST PADI BOYD: David and his team are designing all of those systems that we currently use for cars on roads and thinking about how that translates to airspace. They are mapping out the sky, to make flying safe.

HOST PADI BOYD: This aspect of aerospace, planning for safety and organization, isn’t new to this project. But it is the first time it’s being done in collaboration with a new vehicle.

David Zahn

If you can imagine everything in aviation has been done in one axis at a time. So either we had flight, or we had airspace management. You know, first thing you had was the Wright brothers creating aircraft and people were flying them around, that’s one axis. And then we created air traffic control, we had this guy in a field with a green flag and a red flag. And so every stair step of aviation has been done in again, one of those axis.

David Zahn

So when we’re looking at this autonomous travel, we’re actually cutting that stair step in half, we’re simultaneously introducing new vehicle technology with airspace management techniques.

HOST PADI BOYD: David and his team are working to make this technology easy and accessible. In order to facilitate such a big shift in day-to-day travel, it needs to be tested again and again.

David Zahn

And saying, ‘Hey, when you do see that app, or you do see that ticket that you can get on a ride sharing service, know that it was very vetted. We’ve you know, put years and years of research into making sure that it’s safe.’

HOST PADI BOYD: Mike Guminsky is the Advanced Air Mobility Project Manager. He’s been able to provide another idea of what using these vehicles could look like, and what they could mean for public transportation…

[SONG: Exploration Underscore by Elmsie Ernest Hill]

Mike Guminsky

I think if you think of it more like you know, when you get onto maybe a subway system, you would go park in a parking lot, right? Then you would get up on a platform and you would get on a subway stop that would take you somewhere. That’s how we do it on the ground right now.

Mike Guminsky

And you come in and you park your car and you get out and you go into maybe a little part of a terminal, like a really small, condensed airport. And then somebody walks you out, and maybe with four or five or six other people, and you get in and it just takes you like a like a taxicab over a city or into a city or out of a city or things like that.

HOST PADI BOYD: Making this future a reality has taken a lot of creativity and innovation. In order to make something we can only imagine turn into a reality, you have to find somewhere to start… and you have to expect that not everything will go perfectly the first time.

HOST PADI BOYD: That’s where trial and error can be science’s best friend. In order to solve problems, we need to realize what works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t work.

Mike Guminsky

You got to understand that we’re doing research and development, technology development so we’re constantly learning. We’re taking on things where we don’t know all the answers, so we’re doing research and development to try to figure things out as we go so…

Mike Guminsky

I think you need to be curious. You know, one of those people that likes to solve problems and tackle situations. There’s really no such thing as anybody that’s perfect in this. I came into NASA and I’m working on things that I couldn’t even imagine having worked on even seven, eight years ago so…people that are working on this will be working on things that we can’t even think about today, probably. And you’ll be working as a team, so a lot of times the solution comes up through different people who figure things out together.

HOST PADI BOYD: An important factor in such a huge project like this is teamwork. With more people involved, you get more perspectives and areas of expertise to find solutions. Again, this is Shivanjli Sharma.

Shivanjli Sharma

So teamwork is really essential. There is no way that a complex project like the National Campaign could be accomplished by an individual.

[SONG: Distant Particles Underscore by Deeley Sawtell]

Shivanjli Sharma

We have folks on our team that are engineers, yes, aerospace engineers. But we also have programmers or computer science developers. We also have pilots. Pilots play a huge role in trying to help us understand how traditional aviation functions today and how that needs to evolve.

Shivanjli Sharma

We have individuals that are focused on human factors. How a person, whether you’re a pilot, or someone who’s maybe running an airspace service, is going to interact with their computer display in front of them in a way that makes sense.

HOST PADI BOYD: Testing is a crucial aspect of aeronautics engineering – and all science for that matter. Scientists try out their ideas, products, and theories over and over again in order to make changes and figure things out.

Shivanjli Sharma

We have a maxim that we use: fly, fix fly, meaning, there’s things that we learn from every flight, and the things that we learn make the next flight even better. Being able to learn and iterate and progress is really essential to any research or engineering activity.

Shivanjli Sharma

If we think about the scientific method, right, so the scientific method is: come up with a hypothesis, come up with your experiment, there’s a number of other steps that I’m glossing over. The key aspect is that scientific method is a circle or cycle, it always has to feed back into itself, because you’re going to learn something that impacts your hypothesis and actually changes your hypothesis. And that scientific method, I think, is really at the core of all NASA research.

Shivanjli Sharma

We don’t state that we have all the right answers. In fact, we are explorers, we are curious individuals who know that there’s answers that we don’t have. And that’s, I think, a really key aspect of not only flight activities, but also any research activity that we conduct across the board.

David Zahn

One of the guys on our program says, you know, NASA is only into doing things that have not been done before.

[SONG: Ever Onward 1 Underscore by Goodman]

David Zahn

By nature, trial and error is probably the only way to figure that out.

HOST PADI BOYD: Again, this is David Zahn.

David Zahn

Luckily, that’s where you trust but verify. And you have multiple people that are cross monitoring your performance, whether you’re in the cockpit or you know, in a control room or even in a simulator.

HOST PADI BOYD: NASA’s Aeronautics team has been testing different technologies for these new flight vehicles.

[Begin helicopter flight sounds]

One of the ways they do that is by getting a test pilot into the cockpit of an aircraft and monitoring how the vehicle performs.

HOST PADI BOYD: Let’s tag along on a recent test flight…

HOST PADI BOYD: On this mission – test pilots are trying out different helicopter mechanisms.

[Begin flight chatter]

[Helicopter take off and pirouette sound]

HOST PADI BOYD: The results of tests like this will serve as building blocks for all these new vehicles and transportation systems.

HOST PADI BOYD: Testing is so important, not only to check on the progress and safety of a project, like they’re doing here, but to also see what doesn’t work and make adjustments.

HOST PADI BOYD: It might seem uncomfortable or frustrating to not get things right all the time. But in fact, these setbacks often show you’re on the right track for an exciting, new idea.

[SONG: 11 Alive Underscore by Spoof]

David Zahn

I think it’s the 80/20 rule. You want to succeed about 80% of the time. But if you’re, if you’re getting 100% success all the time, you’re not pushing the edge. And if you’re getting 50% of the success, you’re probably pushing too much into the edge.

HOST PADI BOYD: There are lots of roles in any aerospace project. It takes a team with different skills, perspectives, strengths and weaknesses to come together and make these grand ideas a reality.

David Zahn

So I think aeronautics is much like the NBA. A lot of people love basketball and they only focus on the players. And so they think, oh, if I can’t be a player, or if I can’t be a pilot, there’s no other jobs for me to do in this industry that I would just love to be a part of breaking the physics of the planet and flying fast or hovering or flying in the air. But just like basketball, there are several other supporting things that can allow you to be in that industry without being a shooter. You could be a coach, you could be a referee, you could be a manager. You could do all these things that support that industry, and I think that’s the biggest takeaway from aviation. That there’s still some aerospace engineering programs. There’s still some structures, there’s still all these supporting things that you can be a part of this process, and live the aeronautics dream of looking down on the Earth and flying. So if I would encourage anybody that has a passion, or an inkling to be part of aeronautics, again, there’s more jobs than just the pilot role.

HOST PADI BOYD: Humanity took a huge step in 1903 with the first recorded flight. Now, over 100 years later, engineers like David, Shivanjli, and Mike are imagining a whole new kind of flight:

HOST PADI BOYD: A sky highway with electric, autonomous, flying vehicles – delivering our packages, keeping us safe, and taking us from place to place.

HOST PADI BOYD: Being able to reflect back on how far we’ve come and dream big about the opportunities that still await in airspace is a testament to perseverance, trial and error, and teamwork.

[SONG: Curiosity Outro by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD:This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Christina Dana. Our executive producer is Katie Atkinson.

HOST PADI BOYD: The Curious Universe team includes Maddie Arnold, Kate Steiner and Micheala Sosby, with support from Emma Edmund, and Priya Mittal (Mitt-ALL).

HOST PADI BOYD: Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of System Sounds.

HOST PADI BOYD: Special thanks to Ryland Heagy, Jamie Turner, Eric Land, David Meade and the Advanced Air Mobility team.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you have a question about our universe, you can email a voice recording or send a written note to Go to for more information.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show @NASA, and sharing with a friend.

David Zahn

So for instance, there was a NASA study for a microwave landing system called an MLS in 1983, that we had very similar flight profiles to ours, and some data deliverables a little different.

Producer Christina Dana

This is maybe not at all where the podcast will go but a microwave landing system…like with microwaves?

David Zahn

it’s a it’s a hahaha No, no, no, it’s a, it’s a old old system, but it’s just a ground based landing navigational aid. So something on the ground that an aircraft receiver can ping to and then navigate towards that point.

Producer Christina Dana

Got it. That makes much more sense than what I was imagining.