For the past four years I’ve been invited to help select the winners (as well as help write up the entries) in the category of aviation & space for Popular Science magazine’s annual Best of What’s New issue. Here are some highlights of the 2010 PopSci Best of What’s New, with the reasons we selected them.
Solar Impulse HB-SIA (grand award winner in the category), for the first solar-powered flight (piloted in this case) through a complete day-night cycle, a major breakthrough. The potential here is for lightweight aircraft to stay aloft indefinitely, without the need to refuel—perfect for “persistant stare” surveillance.
Masten Space Systems Xombi, for achieving the first mid-flight shutdown and safe restart of a vertical takeoff/vertical landing rocket. This is a vital step toward cheap access to suborbital space—potentially much cheaper than manned, winged craft like SpaceShipOne. Armadillo Aerospace achieved a mid-flight restart of its own this year, only days after Masten’s. Both companies have been awarded NASA contracts to further develop VTVL technology, following respective wins in NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge.
SpaceX Falcon 9, for proving that the private space industry has what it takes to fill the role of the Space Shuttle when it retires next year. Granted, SpaceX still needs to complete development of the manned version of its Dragon capsule, but Falcon 9’s maiden voyage to orbit this year puts the company firmly on track to start cargo flights to the International Space Station next year. There can no longer be any doubt that the future of human space flight lies at least as much with private companies as with government programs.
Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne/Boeing X-51A Waverider, for the first sustained airbreathing hypersonic flight—that is flight past five times the speed of sound. Decades in the making, this year’s unmanned test flight at last opens the door to aircraft capable of reaching any point on Earth within four hours.
Piasecki/Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Helicopter, for the first flight of a self-piloting chopper capable of selecting its own landing sites and steering clear of obstacles such as power lines and unsafe terrain. At last relief is in sight for medivac helicopter pilots who have to contend with less-than-ideal operating conditions without the aid of the autopilots that have long been available to their fixed-wing colleagues.
Boeing X-37B, for the maiden voyage of America’s first winged orbital craft since the Space Shuttle, which first launched in 1981. This is an unmanned ship operated by the U.S. Air Force. Its exact mission is classified, but its shuttle-style cargo bay and large main engine make it ideal for quick-response spy missions. Remaining in a parking orbit for months at a time, the ship can quickly rocket to a new obit and drop mini spysats on demand.