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:: March 2013 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Aero Science Fans,

Hard work never killed anyone, but why take the chance? For the second year, I have just had the honor of serving on the Collier Committee, and this year it was hard work. Last year’s Collier selection (described in my March 2012 letter) was a simple matter of patiently listening to three runner-ups before we inevitably gave Boeing’s 787 the trophy (I’m not second guessing my vote, in answer to your question). This year, there were seven contestants, thanks to the hard work of National Aeronautic Association CEO Jonathan Gaffney and Chairman Walter Boyne, and there was no obvious winner among them (Curiosity, Voyager, Dawn, G650, Project Liberty, Cargo UAS, Stratos). This meant we had to seriously weigh merits and demerits before adjudicating.

As most readers know, the NASA/JPL Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity won. NASA JPL did a fine job making its case (it really isn’t easy landing a car on another planet). After rocketing to Mars, the vehicle did a Sky Crane-assisted parachute drop, followed by ground exploration. Powered by an Easy-Bake-sized nuclear reactor, Curiosity then used a powerful drill to rip through the planet’s crust. It all looked like a military operation. “We come in peace, foolish Martians. A new life awaits us on the off-world colonies.” But seriously, the overall impression was a classic high-science NASA project that performed extremely well, introduced new technology, and did something inspirational. It was a nice recovery from the Shuttle retirement and the (temporary) end of the US manned space era. If we can’t inspire future STEM students with astronaut careers, this is the next best thing.

Gulfstream’s G650 was the runner up. Even putting aside my parochial fondness for jets, this thing deserves a Collier sooner or later, just as its predecessor the GV (now G550) did (and as the G750 one day will). The biggest, costliest, fastest, longest-ranged dedicated business jet designed yet, the 650 is a collection of superlatives with wings. From my industry analyst’s perspective, the 650 is also distinguished by its economic credentials: it will generate more revenue, create more jobs, and enhance the country’s trade balance more than any other Collier contender this year. That’s not nothing.

What’s intriguing about these closely-ranked top two contenders (the Committee needed a run-off vote) is that they represent two opposing extremes in aerospace. On one end of the spectrum (G650) there are private sector enterprises driven by commercial market demand and created by companies motivated solely by profit. On the other end (Curiosity) you have government customers and government producers creating new programs for the public good and for no monetary gain whatsoever. Most of aerospace is obviously somewhere in the middle of these two poles, but intriguingly, our two finalists were as close as you could get towards both end of the spectrum. It was a $65 million high flying symbol of global success versus an earnest public sector effort to educate and explore. It was Ayn Rand versus Carl Sagan.

Then there were the two military teams, both with strong “helps the warfighter” credentials. For me, the USAF MC-12 Project Liberty Team was a top contender too. This fleet of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) planes has done impressive work supporting troops in Afghanistan. The Lockheed Martin Cargo Unmanned Aerial System is a useful way to resupply bases (and possibly evacuate wounded soldiers) without putting lives at risk. Notably, both of these systems directly aid troops on the ground; they save lives, but they don’t offer the high science and superpower status of previous Collier winners like the B-2, F-22, or V-22.

And that may be the reason they didn’t win the Collier. For them to win, the Collier Committee, and all of society, would need a much broader definition of technological achievement. The world tends to value technology as something that’s either futuristic or something that pushes the performance envelope, rather than as something that simply has a useful and relevant impact on people’s lives. But as technology historian David Edgerton tells us (see my May 2012 letter, or Edgerton’s book The Shock Of The Old), the most useful and relevant technologies often involve new applications of mature equipment. Project Liberty uses a King Air 350ER; the King Air series was designed in the 1960s. Most MC-12 mission equipment is off-the-shelf. The Cargo UAS employs used Kaman K-MAX helicopters, designed in the early 1990s with limited commercial success (Teal dropped report coverage of the K-MAX in 2007). In addition to its derivative roots, the Cargo UAS was disadvantaged by the number of systems actually used (just two). But they’re two hardworking systems, and there’s no doubt lives are indeed being saved as a result.

The two military contenders also provide insight into UAV suitability and development. I asked the Project Liberty people why they didn’t use a UAV, since ISR has always seemed like a no-brainer UAV mission. Turns out the issue was weather-related. In bad weather nobody flies, but in marginal weather crewed aircraft can fly but most UAVs can’t. The Taliban quickly learned to take advantage of marginal weather to attack or move positions. “Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” Mark Twain quipped. The MC-12 people did something about it. If you make UAVs more robust for bad weather, they get less cheap, less expendable, and less compelling.

Also, consider where we are today with UAV development. Like many other new technologies today, UAVs are taking much longer to mature than expected. For example, if you told someone in 1939 that in six years, at the end of the war, we’d see the first limited uses of vertical flight for casualty evacuation, that would have sounded exciting and perhaps even wondrous. If you told someone in 1982 that in 30 years you’d see the first limited uses of unmanned systems for cargo missions, they’d say “30 years? Why not 10? Won’t everything be unmanned in 2012?” These days, futurists need to curb their expectations.

Then, there were two other NASA/JPL competitors (NASA/JPL was behind three of the seven Collier hopefuls; good thing Sequestration hadn’t happened yet). The Voyager Interstellar Mission is inspiring and famous, and teaching us lots about distant planets. Curiosity was just a bit more inspiring and famous. The same is true for the Dawn Project Team, which deserves consideration just for using and advancing ion propulsion technology. Fun fact learned from Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s Chief Engineer/Mission Director: The TIE Fighters in Star Wars are actually named with an acronym: Twin Ion Engine. Digression: ion engines are efficient but weak, producing thrust levels colloquially referred to as a “mouse fart.” Blowing up the Death Star with mouse fart-powered fighters sounds unlikely.

Last but not least, the Red Bull/Sage Stratos Team made a compelling argument that their new highest exit altitude parachute bailout record (along with other related records) would provide useful information about crew survivability and more. It was a compelling argument, and they get credit for bringing Col. Joe Kittinger, a remarkable man who held the record for 52 years (the duration of that record provides further evidence that technology curves have flattened out). Ultimately, they were disadvantaged by not focusing on an actual aerospace system. Rightly or wrongly, the Collier usually goes to hardware, rather than an achievement. They may also have lost points by not bringing Felix Baumgartner, the guy who jumped this time. And by reminding people of Red Bull, which frankly tastes vile.

After a long but inspiring day on aeronautical jury duty, I returned to my day job. March aircraft reports include most Airbus reports: A320, A300, A330, A380, and A400M, along with the S-76, Dauphin, 206/427/429, K-8, M-346, and all the Gulfstreams. Have a good month.

Yours, ‘Til Curiosity Becomes Sentient And Finds A Way To Return Home,
Richard Aboulafia

 

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