A hard decision in a year of multiple aerospace breakthroughs

The decision about how to illustrate the cover of this annual issue comes easily to us in some years. SpaceX’s 2018 photo of “Starman” was irresistible as he headed off into deep space in a Tesla launched by a Falcon Heavy as a demonstration. Almost as irresistible was 2019’s head-on image of the first Stratolaunch flight. Last year’s overhead shot of airliners in storage captured the potential energy of the air transportation market during the pandemic.

This year felt different.

NASA’s flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars in April was a technical achievement, and one that suggests that other new modes of exploring planets and moons could be on the way. A few months later, the first flights to the fringes of space by the billionaires and their friends jolted the system: Suddenly regulators, analysts and journalists, including us, are taking our hardest looks yet at what it will take to get humans into space in significant numbers and the impacts that could have on the environment.

You will find these and numerous other developments referenced in this issue, but we felt the biggest emphasis on the cover should go to Joby Aviation’s 247-kilometer flight of its all-electric, vertical takeoff and landing S4 prototype. That flight on a single charge without a pilot aboard was emblematic of the progress this year in advanced air mobility. In fact, this year might someday be looked back on as the turning point toward the goal of whisking cargo and passengers around locally and regionally aboard electric aircraft that do not require runways. Our choice for the cover should be no slight to the other breakthroughs in that field this year, including Beta Technologies’ 330 km flight of its Alia aircraft with its vertical flight propellers removed and a pilot aboard. Joby’s vertical takeoff and landing flight without a pilot aboard better reflects the characteristics that most experts think these aircraft will require for air mobility services to become profitable.

Aside from the coolness of the air mobility feats, this field stood out to us because this mode of transportation could become “part of daily life,” as the consulting firm Deloitte of Washington, D.C., and the Aerospace Industries Association of Virginia put it in a report this year. Many of us could ride in AAM aircraft within our lifetimes, it seems, but scoring a ride to space will, for the foreseeable future, require winning a lottery or befriending a billionaire. The suborbital flights were significant not for their economic potential but for the awakenings they brought, such as William Shatner’s post-flight speech about humanity’s place in the cosmos.

And if you’re the dollars-and-cents type, projections of market values bear out our decision. Deloitte and the Aerospace Industries Association of Virginia predicted earlier this year that the AAM market in the United States alone will soar to $115 billion by 2035. That’s about five times NASA’s annual budget. In August, Allied Market Research based in Oregon issued a more conservative projection that the global value will reach $17 billion by 2025 and $110 billion by 2035. Whichever is right, the point is that the numbers are huge.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

A hard decision in a year of multiple aerospace breakthroughs