“Walking in space is the most amazing thing a human being can do,” says astronaut Greg Chamitoff PhD ’92. “When you open the hatch, you have to do a flip to get outside, and you see the Earth flying by 250 miles below. You’re hanging from a handrail, and then you look down at your feet and see the Earth floating in this vast sea of blackness; and it just feels like you, the space station, and the Earth are all floating in the middle of nothing, I mean, unimaginable nothingness. It’s just unbelievable.”
Aeronautics and astronautics has come a long way in the past 100 years. The Institute pioneered the nation’s first aeronautical engineering course in 1914, and many say MIT defined the field. Today, the department is the top-ranked graduate and undergraduate program of its kind in the country, and faculty are preparing for a fantastic future of autonomous automobiles and aircraft, and visits to Mars and beyond to search for signs of life. In many ways, this future evolved from MIT’s amazing history of leadership to the nation and the world, and this fall MIT celebrates it all with a three-day symposium honoring 10 decades of creativity in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro).
The Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel was dedicated at MIT in 1938, and major aeronautics companies all tested there during World War II. In 1953, Charles (Doc) Stark Draper flew from Boston to Los Angeles in the first long-distance inertially navigated flight, and Space Inertial Reference Equipment became a forerunner of today’s autopilot systems. And in 1961, the MIT Instrumentation Lab (founded by Draper) developed the guidance, control, and computer systems for the Apollo program, making it possible for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin PhD ’63 to become the first men to walk on the moon in 1969.
“Apollo changed the world,” says Ian Waitz, Dean of the School of Engineering and the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It became an icon of what we can accomplish through technology. A system that could navigate over that distance was unprecedented. And having to write the software and design the hardware so that it could fit inside that capsule was just a huge challenge.”
“In the 1960s, the big issue was going to the moon,” says Institute Prof. Sheila Widnall. “Bob Seamans, an MIT professor, former Secretary of the US Air Force, and Associate Administrator of NASA, basically presented to President John F. Kennedy the reasons why we should go. The stakes were so high,” she says. “You can’t go halfway to the moon. It’s a go, no-go decision.”
“Apollo was the largest, most notable technological project of the century,” adds AeroAstro Prof. David Mindell, who’s also the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing. “It had an incredibly innovative digital computer at the core of that control system with a bunch of software that highly automated the moon landing. And the technology on board beautifully cooperated with the astronauts to accomplish the guidance and landing.”
Waitz calls those who made it happen “technological rock stars,” and says that a vast amount of Apollo-era technology developed at MIT shaped today’s world. “Our engineers contributed to computing, autonomous systems, weather and communications satellites, GPS, space exploration, national security, and many earth processes that relate to climate change and the health of the planet. Many great advances at MIT, and beyond, trace their roots to the Apollo legacy.”
Air Travel Soars
“Up in space, you feel like Superman. You’re flying. You’re really flying. Not when you’re dreaming, but while you’re awake. The way you get around is you fly. It’s really a special place. I mean, you discover that gravity is no longer a fact. It’s an option.” — Greg Chamitoff
Maybe it’s not human-powered flight, but air travel is a big, big business — the largest contributor to the gross domestic product. And the industry is exploding because flying is cheaper than ever before.
By 2050, the whole air transportation infrastructure will double, says Jaime Peraire, AeroAstro Department Head and the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. And not so much in the US, but in developing nations like India, China, Brazil. New airports are springing up by the dozens and old ones are growing larger and better than before. “In the next 20 years,” Peraire predicts, “35,000 large new aircraft will be constructed.”
Ready for the boom is Mark Drela, an AeroAstro professor, aircraft designer, and aerodynamicist, who a while back, designed the D8 aircraft concept for NASA’s N+3 program. If built with future technologies forecast for 2035, it would use 70% less fuel than current planes while also reducing noise and emissions.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” says John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation and the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering. “On a per flight basis, we’re much safer, much cleaner, and we’ve tremendously improved fuel efficiency over the past 50 years. In fact, we’re three times more fuel efficient today than at the beginning of the jet age in the 1960s.”
Drela’s D8 design will make aircraft quieter, cleaner, safer, cheaper, and more efficient. “If you burn 70% less fuel, you have 70% less pollution, so reducing fuel burn is an easy way to reduce emissions as well,” he says, adding it would “certainly lower ticket prices, too.”
And more good news: US transportation is the safest in the world, says Arnold Barnett, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and expert on aviation safety. “No country on Earth has demonstrated a better safety record than the US. In fact, if you took one domestic flight a day, every day of the week, odds are on average you could travel 63,000 years without dying in a plane crash.”
Fly Without the Pilot
We’ll remember this in the future when transportation systems become autonomous.
“Because a plane is flown by a computer, the human doesn’t actually have to be on the plane,” says John Hansman, adding that’s one reason for enormous growth in [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] UAVs. “And miniaturization of this information technology allows us to have huge capabilities on a very small vehicle. Suddenly, with all this innovation, we can do things we couldn’t even dream of 20 years ago.
“There’s no question,” he continues, “pilots will be shifted off the airplane, particularly for military applications, where it will happen first. The question is when — and how good do the systems need to be before people board a plane to San Francisco without a pilot?” It’s a public acceptance issue, Hansman says, adding, “People once operated elevators, and now you happily get on an elevator without a person, right?”
Autonomy is a giant step into the future, Peraire says. “We can use autonomous aircraft for security, monitoring forest fires, inspecting power lines, delivering packages in remote areas, transporting cargo, monitoring agricultural activities, weather forecasts, pollution. There are countless applications. First we’ll see autonomous cars, then autonomous airplanes. The challenge is how to make those vehicles intelligent enough to operate safely. It all will happen gradually,” he says, “but in 10 years, we’re going to be seeing both.”
Space Travel for All
Another powerful thrust in the future will be small satellites, says Paulo Lozano, who has a dream to develop the first interplanetary small satellite, a way to democratize space.
“Outer space exploration is currently limited,” he says. “You can’t go to space unless you’re NASA, Russia, or a large private space agency. You can count on one hand the number of countries that have access to interplanetary space who are capable of investing funds to explore,” he says, adding that an interplanetary mission costs about $1B, but small satellite missions cost just $1–5M.
Lozano, associate professor of AeroAstro and director of the Space Propulsion Lab, is now designing propulsion systems for small satellites. Called CubeSats, they’re the size of a jack-in-the-box and once in space can take off for another orbit or planet. Thanks to advances in nanotechnology, they run on solar power, and sending up satellites in clusters could increase the amount and value of the data.
“And what about if a group of students put together a mission?” says Lozano, who’s now advising 50 students from several universities on how to make that happen. The mission is Time Capsule to Mars, the first crowdfunded, student-led, interplanetary mission, set to launch in 2017. “Only when we give many access beyond low-Earth orbits, can the field of space exploration grow exponentially.”
Kerri Cahoy, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics who holds a joint appointment in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, leads a student team that built MIT’s first CubeSat, set to take thermal measurements of Earth’s weather systems. Launched last summer to the International Space Station, it will be deployed into orbit next year. In addition to work in optical communications, weather sensing, and radiation, Cahoy also focuses on imaging of exoplanets — a planet that doesn’t orbit Earth’s Sun, but orbits a different star. She’s now part of a NASA team designing a space telescope to hold an instrument that will photograph exoplanets, where one day scientists hope to identify signs of life.
New Generation of Leaders
“In space, I took more than 22,000 pictures of the Earth. I will never forget seeing Saudi Arabia in the brilliant light of the sun. It’s not a shape on the map. It looks curved, like a potato chip. I saw Morning Glory, a giant roll cloud across Australia, and in China, I saw clouds in the mountain valleys form fingers and branches that look like leaves of a tree. The Earth is so beautiful. You never get tired of looking at it. I’ll never forget that.” — Greg Chamitoff
Scores of students are now flocking to the field of AeroAstro, because it’s just plain exciting, says Department Head Jaime Peraire. “We’re seeing a 50% increase in our enrollment in the last two years.”
It’s good news in a field where people who helped win the Cold War and Space Race are long gone. And even the current workforce of aerospace engineers is now retiring in large numbers.
And yet, says David Mindell: “The field has a lot of vitality. It’s not Silicon Valley. It doesn’t have the get-rich-quick connotation that you get in a lot of the computer fields. But aviation and space flight have always been fields driven by enthusiasm. People get involved because they love it.”
“Students get excited about aerospace because it is so hands-on, so visual. There’s an energy around it,” says Widnall, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who in the ’90s served as Secretary of the US Air Force. “You see an F-16 flying, and it’s just plain exciting.”
In fact, she says, to determine one’s love of the field, Jim Mar, a former department head in AeroAstro, developed a test: “When you’re walking across a parking lot and a plane flies overhead, do you look up?”
Widnall, who always looks up, says educating the next generation of AeroAstro leaders will define the future of the field, one now soaring in new directions.
AeroAstro once involved studying materials and structures, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics. Today, it involves computational engineering, energy, autonomous systems, aerospace software, and complex systems. A future education, Peraire says, will also include online technologies and innovative educational technologies like Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate (CDIO), which was initiated by AeroAstro in 2000, and which has been adopted by 100 universities worldwide. Also key to the future, Peraire says, are private industries providing access to space — commercial space flight companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which are hiring MIT students for internships and summer jobs. “And,” he says, “the hope is that as new commercial applications develop, we’ll see further expansion in private hands.”
Space Exploration, World Collaboration
“Religious or not, going into space is a spiritual experience. When you look at Earth, it’s so vast; it doesn’t match up with our usual reality. It exists on such a different scale of size and time. You feel that the Earth will continue its journey around the sun, and what’s happening on Earth at any particular place or time doesn’t really matter. You’re overwhelmed with questions: ‘Why is this here? How did it come to be?’, yet you feel the answers will never come.” — Greg Chamitoff
The next giant step is sending humans to Mars, says Dava Newman, co-director of MIT’s Man Vehicle Lab and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, who’s currently designing spacesuits for the trip.
It will likely happen in the next few decades, she says, because we already have the technology; it just depends on political will and committing the resources.
“Human space exploration is at a pivotal historical juncture,” she says. “We have the technology and know-how to explore the solar system, but how do we make it a high national and international goal?” says Newman, adding that space flight could help bring peace.
Much like the successful International Space Station, which is the size of a football field, and which was built by 15 countries over 12 years at a cost of $100B, “There’s a grand opportunity to make future space exploration a prime example of peaceful international collaboration.
“NASA, China, and Russia can now all send humans to low-Earth orbit. But to get to Mars with humans we need to do it globally,” she says. “Let’s go as humanity. Let’s explore with pooled resources and collaborating internationally. That’s the dream.”
Life Beyond Earth
“I can’t imagine that the only place there’s life is Earth. The number of stars and planets are uncountable. Why would this be the only place with life? The real question is if our nearest neighbors are just too far away to ever meet them.” — Greg Chamitoff
“One thing likely to change consciousness in the world is finding life on other planets, and we are poised to do that in our lifetime,” says David Mindell. “If we do find life on other planets, it will be bacteria, microbes, or signatures of organic activity. It won’t be little green men, but it will be so dramatic.”
Newman adds: “This is a remarkable age of exploration, and the space science data coming in shows that there are potentially habitable planets. Getting more and more data every day keeps us searching.”
Meanwhile, life on Earth goes on, for us and for Greg Chamitoff, who after spending six months on the International Space Station with a dozen astronauts, is now back on Earth, and who on this day is sitting on a bench in Cambridge in the brilliant sunlight.
So what do you do for thrills after you’ve been shot into space?
He laughs. “Save my money to go back again on a commercial flight. I want to celebrate a future birthday with my family in space.”
Chamitoff, who flew on the last space shuttle flight of Endeavour, tells of his two seven-hour spacewalks and says that it was so breathtaking, so overwhelming, he didn’t want to come back inside.
“I’d love to go back,” he says. “See, it was tough for me, very tough for me to leave.”