After almost 27 years and 39 flights in Earth’s orbit, the space shuttle Discovery arrived at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., April 17 on its way to its final resting place. The last moments in the air for Discovery began at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., mounted on top of a modified Boeing 747. The retired spacecraft will take final residence in a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center April 19, in Chantilly, Va. At its new home, Discovery will stand on the same spot the shuttle Enterprise occupied since the center’s opening in 2003, according to Dr. Valerie Neal, the curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Unlike Discovery, Enterprise was only a test vehicle and was never used for space flight, making it a less significant artifact to experts. Therefore, it was moved to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York. On duty since 1984, Discovery was the third orbiter that was built and is now the oldest shuttle remaining in the fleet. “Because it started service so early, it flew all different types of missions shuttles were assigned,” said Neal. “In our view, it’s the champion of the shuttle fleet and really helps tell the story of the shuttle era.”
Most visitors will be shocked by the immense size of the orbiter, which on TV often seemed dwarfed by its external tank and booster rockets, Neal said. Others may wonder about the shuttle’s outer condition. Its exterior is well worn and the black tiles of its heat shield show the scars that earth’s atmosphere inflicted.

“We asked NASA not to clean the exterior or repaint it,” Neal said. “We wanted Discovery to be as it was after it flew its last mission.” Changes to the orbiters were minor, Neal said, but included required deinstallation of maneuvering pods, which contained traces of hazardous fuels, and the removal of the shuttle’s main engines, which NASA is planning to reuse in the future. As the shuttle takes its place among the Enola Gay and other iconic aircraft, it also puts a close to a chapter of Air Force history. “The intention in the 1970s was to put all missions, civil and military, on the shuttle once it became operational,” said Rick Sturdevant, the deputy director of history at the Air Force Space Command. “It was supposed to become the only launch vehicle for the U.S., but a lot of Air Force personnel doubted it was a good idea to put all of our eggs in one basket.”
“However, as the shuttle approached, Air Force planning intensified with the construction of a shuttle launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and a Shuttle Operations and Planning Center at Shriever Air Force Base, Colo.,” Sturdevant said. “One of the primary reasons for the creation of what was later to become Air Force Space Command was the intention of administrating and planning shuttle operations for the Department of Defense.”

While much of these installations were never used to full capacity, the Air Force provided services, such as range support during launches and tracking of orbital debris in protection of the shuttle. Sturdevant said he believes the shuttle caused Air Force leadership to think more operationally about space and what the Air Force could do to use space in support of war-fighting capabilities. The shuttle was supposed to become essential in transporting those war-fighting assets into orbit. “For 30 years, it was the premier aerospace vehicle in the world,” said Tom Jones, a former shuttle pilot. “It was the most complex machine ever built and had capabilities in space that have yet to be matched, thirty years after it came onto the scene.” The shuttle established a semblance of routine space flight, Neal said. Space flight seemed like it was no longer going to be extraordinary, but that it was becoming a normal enterprise of the United States.

Two of the originally five sister-ships were destroyed during operations. In 1986, Challenger exploded shortly after take-off, and in 2003, Columbia was torn apart during re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. During both accidents, all seven crew members were lost. “In many ways, the orbiter left a bitter taste in the mouth of many senior Air Force officials,” said Dwayne Day, a senior program officer with the National Research Council. “It helped develop a number of important technologies, and delivered numerous important scientific and national security payloads.” But the military did not get as much out of the program as hoped, and stopped DoD shuttle operations after the Challenger tragedy. “People died in very public ways,” said Day, who worked on the Columbia accident investigation board in 2003. “There were no ejection seats, no escape pods,” Day said. ” If the vehicle was damaged, the crew was doomed. It was a bad situation.” “The shuttle educated the military about having a distributed way of getting into orbit,” said Jones. “Challenger only exposed the vulnerability of having only one way of getting your payloads into space.” The Air Force quickly responded and broadened its base, said Jones.

“What the orbiter did gain for the military was cutting-edge experience on human operations in space,” explained Jones. “Now, with the classified X 37, which is sort of a derivative of the shuttle, the Air Force is taking full advantage of the lessons learned.” It took a lot more maintenance than was anticipated, said Neal, and maintenance took a long time in between flights, so the shuttle never deployed as routinely as desired. “It was a very expensive vehicle,” said Day. “It was so expensive that it made it difficult to find funding to develop a replacement vehicle.” Retired Air Force Col. John Casper, a former shuttle pilot, said the shuttle lasting legacy will be its contribution to building the International Space Station. “Sixteen different nations are involved, forming what is often called the largest international program since the cooperation of the Allies in WWII,” said Casper. “Another legacy is the Hubble Space telescope, which the shuttle carried into orbit.” For Casper, the transition, from an Air Force squadron to the astronaut corps, was an easy one. “There is real joy in working as a team and experience tremendous teamwork with people that are very dedicated, very much like it was the Air Force,” said Casper about shuttle crews. “It was a talented, educated and disciplined team, that was very passionate about what they do.”

Like many missions in the Air Force, shuttle operations called for precision, professionalism and complete immersion in the job, said Jones.
Memories of experiences with the shuttles will always stay with the astronauts, they said. “To look down onto our home – this great, beautiful planet – was very fulfilling,” said Jones. “It is so lovely that tears came to your eyes when you get a chance to reflect upon what you are seeing.” For Casper, flying the shuttle was unlike anything possible on earth. “The shuttle was not like a fighter. The only time you really flew it like a plane was the landing,” said Casper. “And then it could only glide back to earth. There was no way to try the landing again – you only got one chance.” After the Columbia accident, Casper became NASA’s Mishap Investigation Team’s deputy for the debris recovery operation. While the nation was in shock, he said he lost friends.

“The community of astronauts is very small. We all know each other. Some even flew together in the Air Force,” said Casper. “I guess it was also in the Air Force that you find out what happened, try to correct the problem and get back to the mission.” “You can’t let it stop you,” said Casper. “You can’t stop flying planes in the Air Force and you can’t stop exploring in space.” But the shuttle mission is over and new technology is needed to move onto bigger and better things, said Casper. But a certain sadness remains for the astronaut and space enthusiasts alike. “Most shuttles have about 25 to 35 flights,” said Casper. “But they were built for 100 flights each. So they’re in pristine shape.” Thinking that the shuttles were old and decrepit is a common misconception, said Neal. “The fleet has, in fact, been constantly updated, to the point that the shuttles that flew in 2011 were hardly the same as in 1984,” said Neal. “It was the same airframe, but a lot of the technology inside was new,” said Neal.

For Casper, now an assistant for program integration for NASA’s Orion program, a strong space program is an essential political and military tool of the future, he said. “Venturing into space is a demonstration to the world that we have the ability and the will to do so,” he said. “It is a necessary extension of aerospace power and the Air Force’s mission.” One important mission for the shuttle will continue even at the museum – it will continue to inspire. “Seeing the U.S. Flag hanging on the hangar wall behind the shuttle, just like it did when it was in its assembly and servicing hangar, you realize that the shuttle is an icon for the United States,” Neal said. Neal’s team wanted to make the arrival at the museum as accessible as possible, she said. The transfer from NASA was free to the museum and seeing the shuttle will be free to the public -after all it was the public that has supported and financed the shuttle program all along, Neal insisted. “This is the spacecraft of your generation, it is an American icon.” said Neal. “If you never made it to a launch or landing, you really owe it to yourself to see how the U.S. went into space during your lifetime. Come and take pride and ownership in it.”

Air superiority

According to American Air force officials “The F-22 is better than any other aircraft in the world at air-to-ground except for the F-35, and the F-35 is better than any other aircraft in the world at air-to-air except for the F-22″. The American Air Force with the integration of fifth generation aircraft is gaining new tactical advantages that transcend beyond just stealth into areas such as enhanced maneuverability, multi-role capabilities and fused sensor and avionics systems that can communicate with other weapons systems. That’s why it is imperative that U.S. forces continue to develop and begin to use fifth-generation fighters as they transition to the new Pacific-based strategy, according to Lt. Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force.

“The threat environment is continuing to grow, so as we look at how we’re going to maintain those competencies in the future, that’s where fifth generation fighters come in,” he said in mid-March. “It’s not just about stealth.” The general said the Air Force can continue to maintain the most elite fourth generation aircraft in the world, but that won’t prepare the U.S. to handle threats in the future. “Our Air Force has got to keep evolving to meet these new challenges as we move forward into the future,” said Carlisle. To illustrate this evolution and fifth generation fighter jet technology, the general shared a scenario in which an F-22 data-links coordinates to a Navy submarine-launched tomahawk missile onto a target. ”Now you have two stealth platforms, a submarine and an F-22, communicating with naval ordnance,” he said.

That level of interoperability is a large part of what makes the fifth generation Aircraft so vital to the Air Force and U.S. military in general, he added. Aircraft must not only be stealth, but also be highly maneuverable, be able to conduct multiple roles, and these aircraft must also be able to handle sensor and avionics information in a network integrated way not only for the pilot, but for the entire joint force. ”We have to have a fused system capability and have them networked and integrated across the force,” he said. “To me, that’s as important on a fifth-generation fighter as anything.”

To tell the truth Russia has not found itself far behind the States/ more than two years ago- on December, 2010, a prototype Sukhoi T-50 fifth-generation fighter took off on its maiden flight in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia’s Far East. This is the first warplane completely designed and built in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Only the United States currently operates Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor Stealth air-superiority fighters.

In 1981, the Mikoyan Design Bureau started developing the I-90 aircraft, better known as the Multifunctional Fighter (MFI). The project was launched soon after the MiG-29 Fulcrum, MiG-31 Foxhound and Su-27 Flanker fourth-generation fighters performed their first flights.
The I-90 which was to have been mass-produced in the 1990s overtook the U.S. Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program which later gave rise to the F-22 Raptor.

Curtailed defense spending in the late 1980s and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union stopped the MFI program in its tracks. Flight tests planned for 1991 -1992 did not take place. Consequently, the MFI first took to the skies in 2000.
A prototype Sukhoi S-37/Su-47 Berkut fifth-generation fighter had been developed by then.

In 1998, the Russian Air Force issued a new request for proposal (RFP) for a fifth-generation fighter. As a concept it had remained unchanged since the MFI program got underway. The new fighter’s basic specifications included: greater agility, sustained supersonic-flight capability in non-afterburning mode, low radar visibility, low heat signature, as well as enhanced take-off and landing performance.The old designs were scrapped, and it was decided to develop an entirely new warplane fully taking into account the F-22′s capabilities, merits and drawbacks.

In 2002, the Sukhoi Design Bureau won the pilot-project contest, after proposing a full-size and twin-engined fighter with a take-off weight of up to 35 metric tons under its Prospective/Promising Frontline Aviation System program (PAK FA program). Although the new aircraft was expected to take off in 2007, the maiden flight deadline was delayed until 2008, 2009 and January 2010.

Given this new program’s complexity and the scale of the scientific, engineering, organizational and financial problems that had to be tackled during the new plane’s creation, this delay is quite understandable. All these problems are caused by Russia’s crisis-ridden industry. The new aircraft is designated the T-50, Product 701 or the I-21. The Indian Air Force also displayed an interest in this program soon after it was launched. At first, New Delhi preferred the lighter and simpler Mikoyan-Gurevich MFI fighter. The Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG proposed the twin-engine and bobtailed I-2000, an upgrade of the basic MiG-29 model, and a single-engine aircraft closely resembling the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a descendant of the F-35, which came out of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. India wanted to receive this sophisticated aircraft as soon as possible therefore had no choice but to join the PAK FA program. The Indian version will feature a two-seat cockpit, a number of electronic systems and other auxiliary equipment.

These aircraft are expected to replace the Su-30MKI Flanker-H fighters currently serving with the Indian Air Force, in the 2020s and the 2030s. Moreover, it is likely they will be mass-produced in India. The latest test flight reaffirms Russia’s status as a leading aviation power. Only Russia and the United States currently have their own fifth-generation fighters, as well as aircraft industries capable of manufacturing all types of military and civilian aircraft ranging from light-weight aerobatic planes to strategic bombers. All other countries, including France, Sweden, the EU as a whole, China and Japan, lack these capabilities and are forced to implement various cooperation plans in order to develop new-generation aircraft.

Despite their combined efforts the joint EU aircraft industry has failed to create a fifth-generation fighter in place of the Eurofighter Typhoon twin-engine multi-role aircraft. Most of the Eurofighter project participants intend to buy the U.S. F-35 fighter in future. The future for new Swedish and French aircraft remains bleak. Both the Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the Dassault Rafale rank among the generation four-plus-plus warplanes. Neither Stockholm, nor Paris can afford to implement multi-billion-dollar fifth-generation fighter programs. China’s prospects also seem doubtful. Most analysts agree that Beijing can develop a fifth-generation warplane only if it utilizes foreign, notably Russian, experience. Russian aircraft manufacturers must develop at least two competitive prototypes of a fifth-generation fighter jet, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in mid-March.

“Two variants of the future fighter jet must be developed to encourage competition,” Rogozin said at a meeting with Russian lawmakers. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the future fighter must possess all technical characteristics of a fifth-generation fighter, including elements of stealth technology, supersonic cruising speed, highly-integrated avionics, electronics and fire-control systems. There are currently three fifth-generation T-50 fighters in tests, and a total number of 14 aircraft is planned for test flights by 2015. The T-50 is expected to enter service in 2016 and gradually replace MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighter jets in the Russian Air Force. Russia’s Sukhoi aircraft maker will remain among the top three exporters of fighter jets until at least 2015, the Moscow based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT) said this Februaryon. ”Sukhoi will export 109 fighters in the next three years, while U.S. Lockheed Martin exports110 aircraft, and China’s Chengdu -112 aircraft,” CAWAT head Igor Korotchenko said. The total amount of Sukhoi fighter contracts with foreign customers until 2015 is estimated at $5.45 billion.

A senior Navy officer expressed his concern for the community and thanked emergency responders following today’s crash here of a two-seater F/A-18D Hornet aircraft assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 106. Both aircrew safely ejected from the aircraft, officials said. The crew’s squadron is based at nearby Naval Air Station Oceana. The Navy is coordinating with local authorities, officials said. “My thoughts and prayers are with our citizens and families who have been impacted by the tragic crash today in Virginia Beach by an aircraft from NAS Oceana,” Navy Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command based at Norfolk, Va., said in a statement issued today.

“I deeply regret that some in our community have lost their homes, and I, like many, pray for the well-being of all,” Harvey added. Initial reports indicate that at approximately 12:05 p.m., the jet crashed just after takeoff at a location just off of the base. News reports also say the stricken jet struck some apartment buildings located near the base. Reports say several civilians were being treated at a local medical center. In his statement, Harvey expressed his gratitude to the citizens of Virginia Beach and the Mayfair Mews Apartments, as well as Virginia Beach’s first responders “for their immediate and heroic response to take care of our aircrew after they ejected and all at the scene of the mishap.”

Harvey said all resources “are being made available to the City of Virginia Beach as we all deal with the impacts and recovery from this terrible mishap.” “We will continue to work directly with the City of Virginia Beach and continue to provide all possible assistance,” the admiral added. Harvey said a complete investigation into the cause of the crash will be made. He also pledged to “share all information we have as soon as we are able to do so.” VFA-106 serves as the East Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron. The unit’s mission is to train Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 replacement pilots and weapon systems officers to support fleet commitments.

Controlling aircrafts by gestures

Controlling drone aircraft could one day be as simple as waving your arms. Yale Song and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a way of controlling drones taxiing on a runway using gestures. Drones can already land autonomously on aircraft carrier decks, but humans control them during taxiing. With piloted aircraft, navy flight-deck marshals use a codified set of hand gestures to instruct them to, for instance, cut their engines, open weapon bay doors or move to a refuelling bay.

To test whether these gestures could be recognised by a computer, Song’s team wrote an algorithm that analyses 3-second clips from a depth-sensing camera trained on a person performing flight-deck gestures. The system recorded body, arm, wrist, hand and finger positions, and was subsequently able to recognise a flight-deck command correctly 76 per cent of the time.

The team says it is now working on improving recognition levels. The research will appear in a forthcoming issue of ACM Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems. “I can’t see why this wouldn’t work ultimately,” says Peter van Blyenburgh, head of UVS International, a drone trade group. “The gestures are clearly defined – an image sensor should be able to pick them up.”

The MIT team isn’t the only one interested in gesture-controlled drones. In 2009, aerospace firm Boeing, based in Chicago, filed a patent on the idea of controlling squadrons of unmanned aircraft using human gestures. That would mean a pilot on the ground covered in motion sensors could control a drone swarm flying overhead.