EcoMeme: The Future of Flight, Fuel Efficient?


Aviation and space exploration suck – fossil fuel that is. Not to mention clean air, and quiet habitat. Can these industries, so essential to global scientific and economic progress, go green? The race is definitely on.

Offering hope, inspiring blog posts and tweets-a-plenty over the past two weeks were the test flight of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which burns 20% less fuel than other passenger planes of its approximate size, and the unveiling of the world’s first, commercial passenger space craft, the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. SS2 is reportedly more fuel efficient than NASA’s spacecraft.

But such breakthroughs are just the start of what’s possible, in terms of fuel efficiency and other environmental advances, says Joe Parrish, vice president of research and development for Aurora Flight Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aurora makes innovative aerospace products, including unmanned space vehicles, planes that can fit in your pocket, and planes with a 500-foot wingspan that can stay aloft for five years.

Working on the NASA N+3 “future commercial flight program” with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), and the engine technology firm Pratt & Whitney, Aurora Flight Services’ research showed, in preliminary results, “that as much as 40% fuel reduction can be achieved through reduced cruise speed and redesign of aircraft,” Parrish reported.

In other words – a makeover and taking it easy!?

“You can’t take an existing aircraft and just reduce its speed to realize these environmental benefits. It’s not a matter of pulling back the throttle. But the redesigned aircraft does not look totally different from the old,” Parrish notes.

The more fuel efficient flying machine Aurora researchers envision (illustration, above) would be designed to cruise at mach 0.72 instead of the industry standard of mach 0.8. It would not have to use composite materials (which are lighter weight and used in the newly tested Boeing 787 Dreamliner) but it could use conventional aluminum and manufacturing technology, while still saving substantial amounts of fuel.

25% of costs for a typical airliner are spent on fuel, studies show. So the environmental benefits should deliver economic benefits, too.

Can the same efficiencies apply to space travel and space ships? As an industry, commercial space travel is too nascent to “go green,” Parrish says. But it is starting with a very ecological-minded entrepreneur, Richard Branson, along with pioneering spacecraft designer Burt Rutan. Branson famously supported and financed the development of alternative, renewable energy and signed the Clinton Global Initiative in 2006.

A report out on Wednesday (Dec. 16, 2009) from the American Lung Association showed “sixty percent of Americans live in areas with unhealthy air pollution levels,” even with new laws in place attempting to regulate and improve air quality. Every little bit of petroleum saved, and greenhouse gas emission avoided, helps.

Read up on the Boeing 787, and the SpaceshipTwo, and make your wishes for greener commercial and space flight known.

Basic Reading:

“With more than 300 future passengers already putting up the $200,000 for a seat on SpaceShipTwo, there appears to be a strong demand for the rides to the blackness of space…” –

“Boeing’s first new aircraft for ten years represents a radical departure for the manufacturer, eschewing traditional aircraft materials in favour of composites, in the pursuit of efficiency and lightness. If the composites, comprising 50% of the aircraft by weight, do not perform as expected, major headaches could emerge.”- Center for Asia Pacific Aviation

“The [Boeing 787] Dreamliner will offer greater efficiency for airlines”¦ The plane [should] use 20% less fuel than today’s aircraft of comparable size, provide up to 45% more cargo capacity and include a new interior environment with cleaner air, larger windows, more stowage space, improved lighting and other conveniences.”-

Further Resources:

A NasaWatch blog entry in anticipation of the roll out of SpaceShipTwo, entitled “Big Party in the Mojave Tonight”

A blog entry at UniverseToday that includes photos and a video tour of the six-passenger vehicle, the SpaceShipTwo

A story in the New York Times entitled “A Takeoff and Hope for Boeing”

The official home page of N.A.S.A., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the U.S. Government

Image: Aurora

This is the latest installment of EcoMeme, a column featuring eco news, tech and business highlights by columnist Lora Kolodny.