Sucess of NASA’s Curiosity Landing Could Inspire a New Generation of Aerospace Engineers

With the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars earlier today, a new generation of young people could be inspired to become aerospace (or mechanical, electrical, etc.) engineers. The immensely complicated mission culminated in a risky, but spectacular soft landing on the surface of mars. Even with the London 2012 Olympics capturing much of the media’s attention, Curiosity viewing parties around the world tuned into live feeds from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA, to watch the final tense minutes of Curiosity’s touchdown on the Red Planet. With NASA’s manned space program in a multi-year lull after the retirement of the Space Shuttle, successful missions such as Curiosity should be promoted by NASA as much as possible to keep young people interested in pursing math, science and engineering careers. (NASA does seems to be doing a pretty good job of using social media and the internet to dispense valuable information on their unmanned science missions.) Actually, young people today may be able to relate to robotic missions such as Curiosity more than manned missions. This is due to the fact that young people can build and operate their own inexpensive robots in school clubs and competitions, such as Dean Kamen’s national robotic competition. The rapid development of small, unmanned air vehicles (UAV) in the last few years is another area of robotics that could attract young people to aerospace engineering careers. Inexpensive, electrically-powered quadcopters kits are another great way for a young person to learn how science, math and engineering merge to create a flying vehicle. Hopefully NASA can keep  interest in the Curiosity mission at a high level for a long time. This shouldn’t be hard to do, especially when the spectacular high-resolution color pictures of the Martian surface begin to be transmitted back to Earth from Curiosity over the next few weeks.

Aerospace Engineering On High-Pay/Low-Stress Job List

There is some good news recently for aerospace engineers. Not only is the job market looking better, but a recent article lists aerospace engineering as one of the top 5 high-paying, low-stress jobs. A recent article by shows aeronautical engineering (OK, that sounds a little antiquated, since most degrees these days are for aerospace, but we get the idea) number four on the list of jobs that have above-average salaries, but where workers report low levels of stress. After 30 years in the aerospace industry, I would tend to agree with that. There were times when my stress would rise, such as before an important presentation, or watching the outcome of a critical ejection seat test that I spent months coordinating, costs $75k, takes weeks of hardware preparation, and is over in 15 seconds. But those events are usually short-lived and certainly provide a high degree of professional satisfaction when completed successfully. For the most part, aerospace engineers are dealing with highly-educated, motivated professional people, and get to work on interesting projects, all which can help keep stress to a reasonable level.

Space Tourism – So Close, Yet So Far Away

A recent article in the New York Times
mentions that 2012 could be the year we see the start of limited space
tourism via suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic. I’m sure the media coverage (TV, web, magazines) will intensify throughout the year as we get closer to first launch, possibly by the end of the year.  Other companies such as Blue OriginSpaceX, and XCOR
have discussed the possibility of launching  tourists to the
edge of space (suborbital) or even into orbit, but have not actually
built and certified any of their hardware for human flight. In spite of the increased media coverage, I’m
not yet convinced  that we are that close to routinely taking paying
customers to space.


 Virgin Galactic is definitely the closest of any of the companies to fly paying customers, with their SpaceShipTwo (SS2) having successfully flown gliding/landing tests in Mojave, CA within the least year. SpaceShipTwo is based on the success of SpaceShipOne, the innovative design of legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. SpaceShipOne (SS1) was the first aerospace vehicle to take a private citizen to the edge of space in 2004 to win the first X Prize.  It took Rutan’s team about 3 years to design, build, test and fly an aerospace vehicle to take one person up 62 miles. Even before SpaceShipOne flew it’s last flight, Virgin Galactic was formed to develop a larger version for paying customers. However, it has been much harder to scale up SS1 to take multiple passengers, as is evidenced by the over eight years since SS1 flights ended. The hard truth is that human space travel is technically very challenging, and paying customers (and in turn, the government air vehicle certification agencies) are going to demand a much higher degree of reliability and safety than a prototype flown by test pilots, such as SpaceShipOne.

The first paying customers on Virgin Galactic will be shelling out at least $200K for their flights, which being suborbital, will only provide about 5 minutes of continuous free flight in a very small cabin. If the main goal of a paying passenger is to experience weightlessness, you can get the same sensation for much less cost by taking one of these “zero-G”  flights in a modified Boeing 727. You’ll also be able to do much more “floating” in the large aircraft cabin compared to the cramped cabin of SS2. I was able to fly in NASA’s famous “Vomit Comet” back in 1999, and I really enjoyed the sensation. I experienced over 15 minutes of zero-G (30 parbolas, about 30 seconds of floating on each parabola), more than 3 times the amount you will get on SS2. Of course in an aircraft you won’t get to experience the kick-in-the-butt acceleration when the SS2 rocket motor ignites, and the view of earth will be more spectacular from SS2, but once again, is that worth over almost 40 times the price? Personnally, I’d rather save my money and wait until I can go all the way to orbit, spending several days in zero-g and enjoying the view of earth while circling the globe. But I’m not anticipating that happening anytime soon at a reasonable (<50K) cost. Getting humans safely to orbit and back is another order of magnitude more expensive and technically difficult than suborbital flight. Media hype not withstanding, I’m figuring it will be at least another 10 years before we see anything remotely approaching regular orbital tourist flights to space. 


Debate About Electronic Gadget Use in Airliners Rages On

The debate about using electronic gadgets on airliner cabins seems to be never-ending, and was high-lighted again with the recent Alec Baldwin incident on an American Airlines flight. I addressed a similar issue with this blog post about Europe allowing cell phones. In the almost four years since I wrote that post, very little has changed among the airlines and certification agencies (FAA, etc.) when it comes to allowing electronic devices to be used in all phases of a commercial flight. A recent editorial on Engadget offers some practical solutions for finally ending this debate. The post argues for implementing a testing and certification program for any new electronic device to be used on a commercial airliner. (Although even if an electronic device is found to not interfere with the aircraft avionics, there may be other safety reasons for turning them off or stowing them during certain phases of flight, as is pointed out by a flight attendant in the comments section of the Engadget editorial.)

In my experience working in the aerospace industry for over 30 years, I know the technology is available to not only test for E3 (electromagnetic environmental effects) compatibility among cabin and cockpit electronics, but to also to provide shielding if any adverse affects are discovered. The military has been doing exactly this type of testing for years on every new aircraft that is developed, so it shouldn’t be that hard to develop a similar certification program for commercial aircraft. Let’s get agreement from all concerned parties to develop a technically sound certification program. The interested parties include the airlines, airliner manufacturers, electronics and avionics manufacturers, government regulators, and most importantly, the electronic/electrical professional organizations such as IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. It’s time to stop all the debate and finally provide solid technical reasons why electronic gadgets should or should not be allowed to be used in airline cabins.

External Video Camera Helps Qantas Pilots Assess Airbus A380 Damage

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released their preliminary report on the Qantas Airbus A380 engine failure that occurred on November 4, 2010, and it includes some interesting findings. The report details the extensive damage caused by the uncontained engine failure of the Rolls-Royce Trent engine and the remarkable effort of the aircrew to land the plane safely. (An uncontained engine failure is when a major part of the turbofan engine, such as a compressor disc, fails and pieces exit the engine compartment at high velocity.) In this case, a turbine disc failed and the resulting shrapnel damaged the skin, hydraulic and fuel systems and primary structure in the left wing of the A380, the world’s largest commercial airliner. At the ATSB web site you can download the report which includes amazing pictures of the damage.

The photo I found most interesting is on page 12 that shows the damage to the left wing, especially the left wing spar. A wing spar is one of the major structural components of an aircraft, and if a spar fails, it can lead to catastrophic failure of the airframe. In this case, it looks like a good chunk of the forward spar near the failed engine is missing. Fortunately modern airliners are structurally designed with large margins of safety and multiple load paths so that damage in one area doesn’t lead to a cascading failure in a nearby area. Still though, this Qantas A-380 is going to require significant work to repair the left wing, including possible replacement of a portion, or all, of the forward spar.

I won’t go into detail about the A380 crew effort to save the aircraft, as the ATSB report provides a good summary. But what I did find interesting in the report (page 5) is the mention of externally mounted video camera on the tail of the A380. Apparently the A380 has a video camera facing forward on the vertical tail that provides a live video feed to the in-flight entertainment system. One of the pilots went back into the cabin after the engine failure to see if he could assess where the damage occurred when he was told by a passenger that the external video feed showed a fluid leaking from the left wing. (What is not mentioned in the report is whether this live video is also available in the cockpit.) This information helped him determine the location of the aircraft damage. As far as I know, this would be the first instance of an aircraft-mounted video camera being used to assess damage to a commercial airliner in-flight.

With the evolution of smaller and lighter digital video cameras over the last 10 years, there have been more discussions on the merits of mounting these cameras at strategic locations on the outside of large aircraft to aid the aircrew in assessing aircraft damage. I know that American Airlines at one time offered a live video of takeoff and landing to the passengers in the cabin, but I believe the camera was mounted inside the cockpit and only gave a view looking straight out the front of the aircraft. The small size, high quality and relatively low cost of digital video cameras today could allow for several to be located on the outside of the aircraft (tail, wingtips, belly, etc.), providing views of the entire exterior of the aircraft. It would be relatively easy to have a display in the cockpit that showed individual or multiple views from all the cameras. Also, with cheap, high-capacity digital storage available today, it should be simple to record the video feeds from any camera to aid in accident investigations. It appears that the main reason Airbus mounted the camera on the tail of the giant A380 was for passenger entertainment. However, after seeing how it helped the aircrew assess the extent of the damage to their aircraft in this mishap, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the ATSB, or even the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S., recommend that video cameras providing coverage of the outside of an aircraft be implemented on all new commercial aircraft.