By Michael Belfiore., August 15, 2011.

The HTV-2’s hypersonic glide flight test was but one of many high-risk, potentially high-payoff projects funded by DARPA. DARPA is America’s hidden innovation engine. Not so many know the name, but nearly everyone is familiar with the agency’s work: GPS receivers that slip into our pockets, interactive computer displays and the Internet itself.

DARPA only undertakes projects that have a good chance of failing — projects that few others dare to take on. Projects like hypersonic flight. The failure is not surprising; permission to fail is what has enabled the agency’s spectacular success over its 53-year history.

With the HTV-2, DARPA and its partners, including the Air Force and Lockheed Martin, were attempting to advance a technology that has captured the imagination of aerospace engineers since the 1960s. Hypersonic flight, that is flight powered by air-breathing engines at greater than five times the speed of sound, could enable airplanes to cross the United States in minutes rather than hours, to jet from one side of the globe to the other and back on the same day.

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