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Can the aerospace industry regain its ability to "try"?

TPI Composites’ Steve Nolet reflects on the strides that composites in the aerospace industry have made in the past fifty years, while also wondering if the industry could regain the space race era desire to test limits.
#spiritaerosystems #pastpresentandfuture #boeing

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The new year kicked off with a little-noticed headline from the South China Morning Post: China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft to try historic landing on far side of moon between ‘January 1 and 3.’ Indeed, on Jan. 3,  the People’s Republic of China successfully completed the “try” with the first soft landing of a craft on the far side of the moon. Imagine how this event has captured the minds of young Chinese students — the wonder of their government making this attempt and the national pride of a successful mission. I am particularly stirred by the use of the word “try” in the periodical’s headline. It makes me wonder: Do we as a nation still try? Are risks allowed in our world today?

Let’s travel back 50 years to 1969,  the zenith of America’s space age. The year was preceded by the Christmas orbit of Apollo 8 around the far side of the moon. A scant seven months later, July 20, 1969, saw man’s first step on that very same surface. For those of us experiencing our formative years — and for me personally — the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs shaped not only a sense of national pride (and the importance to serve) but nearly all of my future interest in a career centered around science, technology, mathematics and engineering. Imagine the vision, the effort, the technical development that occurred from John Glenn’s first orbit of the Earth and that first step, seven years and seven months later. In 2019, we barely complete the technical specifications of a new aircraft system in that same period of time.

In my opinion, the Apollo program and the great challenge that was laid before us as a nation then was our last great “try.” Today, despite the computing power on our desktops, the material technologies that are so much more matured (and themselves a product of our space program), the engineering simulation that is so well vetted and the availability of capital, it now takes generations to accomplish something Yuri, Alan and John did nearly 60 years ago. I am only left to wonder what the world would be like today if, over the past five centuries, the same level of acceptable risk we employ today were applied to the voyages of the great explorers, the building of the transcontinental rail system, industrialization, the Wright brothers and the travails of the Greatest Generation (which includes the original seven Mercury astronauts).

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Spirit AeroSystems, which manufactures the forward fuselage section of of the Boeing 787. Despite my being an industry professional who understands the evolution of automated fiber placement (AFP) in the vernacular of our business, I could not help but feel — standing before the massive AFP machine placing fiber tow on the cockpit of this massive and beautiful vehicle — the same inspiration for this industry that I felt as a nine-year-old boy.

In 1969, the technology of advanced composite materials, particularly  carbon fiber-reinforced materials, was at its infancy. The understanding of the mechanics of both static failure and mechanisms of wear-out due to cyclic loading were just being explored. A lack of manufacturing experience and the fear of  inconsistency in bonded structures gave rise to an industry vernacular that includes “chicken rivets” and “redundant structure.” But it was the likes of Steve Tsai, Chris Chamis, Nick Pagano, J. C. Halpin, Jim Whitney and so many others that rapidly evolved our understanding of these materials and shed light on the science of anisotropy. Today, using computing capability combined with the  knowledge those leaders developed, we have built a deep and broad ability to apply  composite material systems to nearly all industries, including my precious aerospace industry.

Since my entry as a professional in the winter of 1984 as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, I have had the opportunity to work on countless applications for composites on a variety of platforms. My disappointment at the slow pace of deployment in production, however, left me jaded. For example, the  Advanced Technology Fighter (ATF) slated for my organization’s care (AF-ALC McClellan AFB) would take  20 years to enter service, delayed by contracts, legal ramifications and countless levels of test and development

On the other hand, today, we could not imagine not using composite materials technology to build the pressure vessels that house the solid or liquid propellant that lift our space vehicles to new worlds and deploy the satellites that make up so much of daily life. Also, not by surprise, today’s “space race” is led by commercial industry. The likes of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are now expanding manned space flight in search of the untapped potential of “space tourism.”  

While the progress we have seen in the past five decades is remarkable, one cannot help but admit that the timeline applied to these projects is far less than inspirational. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that our leadership has chosen not to lead the world in singular grand challenges such as a race to inhabit or colonize Mars, to seek energy independence from fossil fuels or to explore the deepest reaches of our oceans to unlock secrets of climate change. Or, for that matter, to capture the mind of today’s young students and allow them to  imagine what, left unencumbered, may be accomplished if only they could “try.”

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