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Two steps forward, one step back

Column by Brian Zinchuk

For a society that seems to be moving forward on so many technological fronts, we are also quietly slipping backward as well, especially when it comes to aerospace.

On February 2 CNN ran a story about how Boeing is cutting production of the venerable 747 Jumbo Jet by half, to six airframes a year. It will likely cease production soon.

The Airbus A380 was not long ago hailed as the successor to the 747, with more seating capacity and a full second deck of passenger seating. Now it, too, is struggling for orders and could possibly cease production if more airlines don’t step up.

This is after production of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy ended long ago, and the C-17 Globemaster III ended a few years ago. Canada picked up one of the very last C-17s to be produced before the line was shut down for good.

The net effect of all this is that, should both the 747 and A380 end production, the Western World will have lost the capability of building massive four-engine aircraft. Given the state of Ukraine, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Antonov’s capability of filling that hole, even with its massive An-124 which is still in production, if barely.

Supersonic travel was supposed to take over the world with the Concorde. But it has long since retired, and despite occasional references in fanciful online articles, the likelihood of crossing the Atlantic at Mach 2 any time soon is remote, indeed. (There is a group that wants to return one airframe to limited service. Good luck with that.)

Large aircraft aren’t the only major area of aerospace capability slippage. We have not had a man walk on the moon in my entire lifetime, and I was born in 1975. We may not see man on the moon again in the rest of my lifetime, either, given the way things are going. We almost certainly won’t see man set foot on Mars, either, before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

We used to have this wonderful thing called the space shuttle. Sure, it was essentially a truck hauling things back and, occasionally, forth to low earth orbit, but it was an important capability to have. Its later flights focused primarily on building the International Space Station, something we could probably never rebuild today with our current capabilities since the shuttle has been retired. Thus, when it’s time to retire the International Space Station, we don’t, and likely won’t, have the ability to replace it. There’s nothing in the pipeline right now with the capability of the shuttle. Those capabilities are gone, and not coming back, likely for decades.

There’s a line by Matthew McConaughey in the movie Interstellar that really rings true in this regard. His character, Cooper, is a former astronaut turned corn farmer. Cooper said, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Why is this the case with aerospace? We don’t see it in shipbuilding, by and large. They are continually building larger and larger cruise and container ships. We did top out with the Seawise Giantwhen it comes to oil tankers, however, in 1979. I guess when the largest ship in the world draws too much water to traverse the English Channel, and won’t fit through either the Suez or Panama Canals, that might be the practical limit.

Land vehicles see continual improvements in horsepower, torque and payload. A half-ton today has more horsepower as a one-ton 30 years ago, but gets much better fuel economy. Look at the monster tri-drive semis we see today.

What has caused aerospace to plateau and start backsliding? Is it the overburden of ever-increasing safety standards that have choked off growth in aerospace capability; insurance choking out new product, like it did with much of general aviation for decades? Is it the lack of vision? Or simply the case of the tremendous inflation curve of aerospace development costs has risen out of the stratosphere?

It’s time to look to the stars again, not the dirt.

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