NASA's contracted three of the biggest names in aircraft design to dream up the kind of airliner we'll see in 2025, and has just shown the initial concepts. They're weird, eco-friendly, and wonderful.
By Kit Eaton
NASA's goal is to invent commercial airliners that can cover the same kind of use cases as current aircraft, but do so with far greater fuel efficiency, less gaseous and noise pollution, and potentially eating up less energy and resources during their fabrication too. This is the sort of long term aeronautical experimentation that NASA funds from time to time, spurring companies to look into long term evolutionary concepts rather than incremental R&D in their usual business areas.
Late in 2010 it contracted Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing to imagine an aircraft that could fly as soon as 2025, manage 8% of the speed of sound, with a range of 7,000 miles and a payload of 50,000 to 100,000 pounds--either passengers or cargo. Given how long it usually takes to craft an aircraft from scratch, and bearing in mind how many technical hitches the revolutionary Boeing 787 Dreamliner has suffered, these are the sorts of aircraft that these three firms are probably beginning to design for real right about now. Airbus, the European competitor to these U.S. businesses, has already dreamed up a design for 2050, for example.