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A moonshot moment for jet flight, to be ‘used for the progress of all people’

A View From the Edge

The commercial aviation community is at a crossroads and has turned to NASA research and industry leaders to find a way forward. Global research has shown that commercial flights (freight and people) are responsible for 6% of the world’s CO2 and carbon-monoxide pollution, yet that same industry is responsible for only 1% of commerce and less than 0.01% of human carbon-based movement across the planet. Adding to the environmental impact, planes’ pollution is released at altitude, away from trees and oceans that could absorb some of it before it further damages the upper atmosphere.

Kennedy’s speech from 60 years ago has given them a well-proven path forward: “…we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead… We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”

Industry giants, like GE Aviation have stated, “we are fully committed to decarbonization… the goal of a net-zero company by 2050, including emissions for all our products.”

BP, Elf, ESSO, Safran, Petronas and many other suppliers to the aviation community have stated they want to become net-zero emitters by then as well.

How? They are attacking the problem in stages, exactly as the U.S. space program did.

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo capsules and launch systems were all incremental developments. You could not go to the moon straight off.

First you had to learn how to get into space, then orbit, then navigate and “fly” in space and lastly to get to the moon and return. The environment was harsh, the thousands of unheard-of-before machinery all needed to be invented (for example the CAT scan was invented to “see” into the spun aluminum Apollo capsule for cracks).

So, too, for the aviation industry. Biofuel, modifications to existing fleets’ engines to take the new fuel, with new engine development already showing a 20% increase in fuel efficiency. New manufacturing techniques including bubble chamber “printing” presses to make unheard of shapes for combustion blades, new alloys and ceramic matrix composites to allow higher temperatures and lighter engines, electric propulsion units, new battery systems and production, hydrogen fuel systems (exhaust of these is water), new aerodynamic shapes and skin coatings, and the evolution of the 1985 un-ducted engine now renamed open-rotor engines.

These are just the beginning. Like the thousands of Apollo moments in space innovation for the benefit of all mankind, so, too, the fixes to the pollution problem being tackled by commercial aviation will benefit us all, in every walk of life, even if you never step aboard that plane again.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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