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Boeing wins $425M from NASA for fuel-efficient plane

NASA says it’ll give Boeing $425 million over the next seven years for the development and flight testing of a new breed of fuel-efficient airplane with ultra-thin wings.

The innovative airplane design could produce fuel savings of up to 30%, and blaze the trail for the aviation industry’s effort to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “If we are successful, we may see these technologies in planes that the public takes to the skies in the 2030s,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release.

Boeing’s Transonic Truss-Based Wing concept, or TTBW, involves building an aircraft with extra-long, extra-thin wings that spread over the top of the fuselage. Extra stabilization would be provided by diagonal struts attached beneath the fuselage.

One configuration calls for foldable wings that are 170 feet wide — which is 27 feet shorter than the wingspan of a 787 Dreamliner but 53 feet wider than the wingspan of a 737 MAX 8.

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Mexican airline signs up for 30 Eviation electric planes

Arlington, Wash.-based Eviation Aircraft added to its multibillion-dollar order book with a letter of intent from Mexico-based Aerus to purchase 30 of its all-electric Alice airplanes. Aerus is scheduled to start regional service later this year, with Monterrey as its regional hub, but it will have to wait several years for Eviation’s nine-passenger commuter planes to be delivered.

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Stratolaunch’s mammoth plane begins its big year

Stratolaunch, the air-launch company founded by the late Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, today conducted its second captive-carry test flight with the world’s largest airplane and a piggyback payload. The six-hour outing from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port marked further progress toward the first launch of the Talon-A hypersonic flight vehicle.

Today’s flight gave Stratolaunch’s team a chance to rehearse procedures for releasing a separation test vehicle from the twin-fuselage Roc aircraft in midflight — and eventually launching rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles for government and commercial applications. “We are excited for what’s ahead this year as we bring out hypersonic flight test service online for our customers and the nation,” Stratolaunch CEO Zachary Krevor said in a news release.

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The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.

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Virgin Galactic teams up with Boeing for motherships

Virgin Galactic says it will partner with Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based Boeing subsidiary, to design and build next-generation motherships for its suborbital rocket planes.

The motherships will serve as flying launch pads for Virgin Galactic’s next-gen, Delta-class spacecraft, just as a carrier airplane called White Knight Two or VMS Eve has served for the company’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane.

The system’s design is an upgraded version of the SpaceShipOne system that was funded almost two decades ago by Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

VSS Unity and VMS Eve have been undergoing test flights for years, and commercial suborbital space missions are scheduled to begin next year at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Hundreds of customers have reserved spots on future flights.

The next-generation mothership and rocket plane are due to start revenue-generating missions in 2025. The partnership announced today will cover the production of two motherships.

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Stratolaunch hits new heights with world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch says its mammoth carrier airplane rose to its highest altitude yet during its seventh flight test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The aerospace venture, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago but is now owned by a private equity firm, reported a peak altitude of 27,000 feet during today’s test.

If all goes according to plan, the twin-fuselage Roc airplane could begin flying Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic test vehicles for captive-carry and separation testing as early as this year.

One of the prime objectives for today’s three-hour flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port was to gather data on the aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, including a pylon structure from which the rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles will be released and launched.

Roc’s seventh flight came a week after the sixth flight test, which couldn’t achieve all of its objectives.

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Boeing is moving its HQ from Chicago to Virginia

More than two decades after the Boeing Co. moved its headquarters from its Seattle birthplace to Chicago, the aerospace giant is planning to do it again — this time, heading for Arlington, Va.

Boeing confirmed a report about the move that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal. Arlington already serves as the headquarters for Boeing’s defense, space and security business unit, and the company said it would develop a new research and technology hub in Northern Virginia.

“We are excited to build on our foundation here in Northern Virginia,” Boeing’s president and CEO, Dave Calhoun, said in a news release. “The region makes strategic sense for our global headquarters given its proximity to our customers and stakeholders, and its access to world-class engineering and technical talent.”

Boeing didn’t provide a timetable for the HQ switchover.

The move to Arlington in the Washington, D.C., area reflects a classic corporate strategy to have the company’s executive offices close to where the federal government’s purchasing decisions are made.

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‘Downfall’ recounts 737 MAX mess as a tech tragedy

The missteps traced in “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” — Netflix’s new documentary about Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX jet — are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Under the direction of filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert F. Kennedy, “Downfall” recounts how the aerospace giant cut corners in a race to compete against Airbus, and pressed mightily to minimize the known problems with a computerized flight control system that was capable of causing the 737 MAX to go into a fatal dive.

The result? Not just one, but two catastrophic crashes — first in Indonesia, in 2018, and only months later in Ethiopia. The combined death toll amounted to 346 people. The jets were grounded for nearly two years while Boeing worked on a fix to the control system.

When the Indonesian crash occurred, the root cause seemed to be shrouded in uncertainty. But subsequent investigations showed that Boeing knew the cause had to do with tweaks in an automated software routine known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

In the early stages of those investigations, I struggled to explain what MCAS was supposed to do (keep planes from stalling under extreme conditions) and what it ended up doing (forcing planes into a dive). “Downfall” uses graphics and re-enactments to show how MCAS and other points of failure on the 737 MAX figured in the tragedy.

The film also lays out evidence from emails and other documents showing that when the 737 MAX was undergoing certification for flight, Boeing was desperate to avoid providing pilots with extra training, at extra cost — so desperate that the company hid the MCAS software’s capabilities from pilots, airlines and regulators.

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Radian raises $27.5 million for orbital space plane

More than five years after its founding, Renton, Wash.-based Radian Aerospace is emerging from stealth mode and reporting a $27.5 million seed funding round to support its plans to build an orbital space plane.

The round was led by Boston-based Fine Structure Ventures, with additional funding from EXOR, The Venture Collective, Helios Capital, SpaceFund, Gaingels, The Private Shares Fund, Explorer 1 Fund, Type One Ventures and other investors.

Radian has previously brought in pre-seed investments, but the newly announced funding should accelerate its progress.

One of the company’s investors and strategic advisers, former Lockheed Martin executive Doug Greenlaw, said Radian was going after the “Holy Grail” of space access with a fully reusable system that would provide for single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launches.

It’ll take much more than $27.5 million to grab the grail: In the late 1990s, NASA spent nearly a billion dollars on Lockheed Martin’s X-33 single-stage-to-orbit concept before the project was canceled in 2001. But Radian’s executives argue that technological advances have now brought the SSTO vision within reach.

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Zeva’s flying saucer aces its first free flight

After years of effort, Tacoma, Wash.-based Zeva has executed the first untethered, controlled flight test of its full-scale flying machine — a contraption that looks like a flying saucer.

The demonstration was conducted Jan. 9 in a pasture in rural Pierce County, not far from Zeva’s HQ. During four separate sorties, the Zero aircraft racked up more than four minutes of controlled hovering, simulated taxiing maneuvers at slow speeds, and limited vertical-climb maneuvers.

Zeva’s flying saucer is an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft, or eVTOL, that’s powered by four pairs of rotors. It’s designed to lift off vertically with a single pilot, then transition to a horizontal orientation to fly at speeds of up to 160 mph with a range of up to 50 miles.

“This is a huge inflection point for Zeva as we join an exclusive set of proven flying eVTOL platforms, and a testament to the relentless hard work and ingenuity of our entire team over the past two and a half years,” Stephen Tibbitts, Zeva’s CEO and chairman, said today in a news release.