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Boeing sends off its last 747 — but this isn’t the end

Boeing gave its iconic 747 jumbo jet a grand sendoff today, marking the end of a 55-year era for airplane manufacturing but vowing that the “Queen of the Skies” will continue its reign for decades to come.

Thousands of onlookers — including past and present Boeing employees, customers, suppliers and VIPs — gathered at the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., for a ceremony marking the handover of Boeing’s last 747 to Atlas Air.

“We do not close this book,” Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told the crowd as the jet stood on the tarmac behind him. “It’s just a chapter. We’ll have another chapter of the 747. This airplane will be supported for decades to come, I promise you.”

Atlas Air will operate the 747-8 cargo freighter on behalf of Apex Logistics, a freight forwarder majority-owned by Switzerland’s Kuehne+Nagel Group.

Due to the evolution of the aviation industry, Boeing’s 747 jets have primarily been sold to cargo carriers in recent years. Smaller, more fuel-efficient jets such as the single-aisle 737 and the wide-body 777 and 787 Dreamliner are typically preferred nowadays for passenger service.

But back in 1968, when the first 747 rolled off Boeing’s assembly line, the jumbo design revolutionized airline service.

“We’re talking about one of the most important airplanes in all of history,” Mike Lombardi, senior corporate historian at Boeing, said in a video preview for today’s handover.

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Amazon and Boeing join Northwest’s quantum team

It’s been almost four years since Pacific Northwest leaders in the field of quantum computing gathered in Seattle for the first Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit, and since then, the scientific buzz over quantum has only gotten buzzier. So what’s next for the Nexus? A star-studded second summit.

Amazon Web Services and Boeing are joining this week’s gathering at the University of Washington, and nearly 300 academic, business and government representatives have signed up to attend. Some of the companies showing up at the second summit — such as the Seattle startup Moonbeam Exchange — didn’t even exist when the first summit took place in March 2019.

Over the past four years, UW has received about $45 million in federal funding to support research into quantum information science. Quantum computing has gotten fresh boosts from Congress and the Biden administration. The Pacific Northwest’s two cloud computing powerhouses, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, have both rolled out hybrid quantum platforms. And just last week, Maryland-based IonQ announced that it’s setting up a research and manufacturing facility for quantum computers in Bothell, a Seattle suburb.

Microsoft, UW and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory got the ball rolling for the Northwest Quantum Nexus in 2019. IonQ, Washington State University and the University of Oregon’s Center for Optical, Molecular and Quantum Science joined the team a couple of years later. Now the addition of Amazon and Boeing brings two of the region’s tech giants into the fold.

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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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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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Boeing’s last 747 has left the building

Nearly 55 years after Boeing started production of its jumbo 747 jet, the last model of the iconic airplane left the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., closing a chapter in aviation history.

“For more than half a century, tens of thousands of dedicated Boeing employees have designed and built this magnificent airplane that has truly changed the world,” Kim Smith, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for 747 and 767 programs, said in a statement after Tuesday night’s rollout.

Workers and VIPs gathered at the Boeing plant to watch the plane, wrapped in a green protective skin, emerge from the giant assembly building. The 747-8 will go on to other facilities for painting and fitting-out, with delivery to Atlas Air scheduled in early 2023. Atlas plans to operate the cargo freighter as well as the second-last 747 to be delivered for Kuehne + Nagel, a Swiss logistics company.

Back in the 1960s, Boeing engineer Joe Sutter designed the 747, the world’s first twin-aisle airplane, to carry 400 passengers or more on long-haul flights. Production began in 1967, and the first plane entered service with Pan Am in 1970.

For decades, the 747 was celebrated as the “Queen of the Skies” — and it played supporting roles in movies ranging from “Airport ’77” and “Air Force One” to the 2020 sci-fi movie “Tenet.” More than 1,500 of the planes were produced.

But as the aviation industry came to focus on fuel efficiency and point-to-point route planning, the business model for the passenger 747 became obsolete. In recent years, the 747 has increasingly been used for cargo rather than passengers, and the baton has been passed to other wide-body jets such as the 767, 777, 787 and 777x.

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X-37B space plane lands after record-setting mission

The U.S. Space Force’s Boeing-built X-37B space plane today completed yet another record-setting mission, landing like an airplane at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida 908 days after it was launched.

This was the sixth mission in the hush-hush X-37B test program, and the first to fly with a ring-shaped service module on its tail. The service module, which was jettisoned before the reusable plane’s descent, accommodated an extra set of experimental payloads for NASA and the U.S. military. It’s built to be safely disposed of in the coming weeks.

Hours after the landing at 5:22 a.m. ET (2:22 a.m. PT), the Space Force declared the mission to be a success.

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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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Starliner space taxi’s success paves way for crewed flight

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule landed safely amid the sands of New Mexico after a six-day test flight to the International Space Station and back.

This trip was uncrewed — assuming you don’t count a sensor-equipped mannequin nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer as a crew member. But living, breathing astronauts could fly on Starliner as soon as this year.

All went well today with Starliner’s descent from the space station and its parachute-aided, airbag-cushioned landing at White Sands Missile Range, Cheers arose at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, where the final stages of the flight test were being tracked.

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Starliner docks with space station after ‘excruciating’ wait

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi docked with the International Space Station for the first time today during an uncrewed flight test, marking one more big step toward being cleared to carry astronauts to orbit. But it wasn’t easy.

“The last few hours have been excruciating,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged during a post-docking teleconference for journalists.

Despite a few glitches, Lueders and other leaders of the NASA and Boeing teams said they were generally pleased with Starliner’s performance, beginning with its May 19 launch from Florida and continuing with today’s hours-long series of orbital maneuvers.

“We’ve learned so much from this mission over the past 24 hours,” Lueders said.

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Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off for second test flight

Two and a half years after an initial orbital flight test fell short, Boeing is trying once again to put its CST-100 Starliner space capsule through an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station and back.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket sent Starliner spaceward from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET (3:54 p.m. PT) today. Boeing and NASA are hoping that this second orbital flight test, known as OFT-2, will pave the way for Starliner’s first crewed flight later this year.

Within OFT-2’s first hour, Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage and executed an engine burn to reach its intended orbit. “It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it is really just the beginning,” NASA commentator Brandi Dean said. “We’ve got a number of demonstrations now that the Starliner will have to go through ahead of its International Space Station arrival.”

Boeing has received billions of dollars from NASA to develop Starliner as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for sending astronauts into orbit. NASA’s arrangement with SpaceX and Boeing has been compared to a taxi service, with the space agency paying the spacecraft providers for rides.