Highlights and Challenges, 2018–2020

As we go to press the world is gripped in a pandemic the likes of which no one alive today has experienced before. COVID-19 turned our modern air transportation network into a disease vector, and the result is much of that system and the industries that support it have been temporarily shut down. While no one has escaped the impact, AIAA is benefiting from a very wise financial policy put in place many years ago and updated in 2009 after the last financial crisis that requires us to maintain operating reserves sufficient for nine months of operations, plus fulfilling our out-year strategic commitments. While this may have at times seemed like an overly conservative policy, today it is proving its value as AIAA has been able to continue operations, including supporting our professional staff, even as most of our events for this spring have been cancelled. We are rapidly pivoting to a “more virtual” reality, including the first major flagship event, AIAA AVIATION Forum, that will be fully virtual.

As I wrap up my term as AIAA President and hand the reins to Basil Hassan, I wanted to reflect on a few highlights and challenges.

Membership. After decades of decline, our membership reached a minimum in FY2018 and has begun to grow again. As our Board of Trustees shifts their focus from a five-year project of reforming the governance structure to a focus on membership growth, we have seen experiments such a e-Membership start to pay off. A renewed focus on our corporate members, led by Executive Director Dan Dumbacher, is key to this effort. We’re also converting AIAA AVIATION to an all-virtual format this year to benefit our members working from home during the pandemic. In addition, we have launched the ASCEND event, which includes the best parts of the AIAA SPACE Forum—building the program on a foundation of technical excellence, but taking that experience to the next level, opening the door to more interdisciplinary collaboration and conversation. ASCEND will debut this November in Las Vegas. We need all our membership to support both of these pioneering efforts.

Diversity. Similarly, our focus on increasing the diversity of our membership is showing tangible signs. At our recent AIAA SciTech Forum plenary sessions, three of the five speakers were women and two were people of color. One of my favorite parts of being AIAA President is that I get to host the 20 Twenties, a joint program AIAA runs with Aviation Week Network. This year, for the first time, more than half of the rising stars in aerospace were women. And last year we established the Diversity Scholars Program, in which we provide financial support through a competitive selection process to diverse students who might not otherwise be able to attend. We have now extended this program to all our major events.

Education. The key to making our workforce look more like the nation is to extend our recruiting pipeline much deeper into the K–12 education system than ever before. I’m thrilled that the AIAA Foundation now has a full-time director and additional staff, that its endowment has reached record highs, and that new programs are in development. We have begun a serious partnership with the AIA for the The American Rocket Challenge (TARC), and so far over 138 AIAA members have volunteered to help TARC schools.

The Power of the Past, The Promise of the Future. Over the last two years one of the big AIAA projects was marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and hosting the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC 2019). Like ASCEND, hosting this event was a heavy lift and a financial gamble for the Institute. Led by Craig Day, the entirety of AIAA rose to the occasion and pulled off an event that no one who attended will ever forget, and which not only broke even but generated a modest financial return for the organizers. Perhaps my favorite memory of the event was the recognition of the Apollo 11 crew with the World Space Award. What really made this special was that the crew was represented by three generations: one from the generation that made the flight, one from the generation that grew up with it, and one from the generation that so far has not seen a human walk on the moon. And changing that is all of our jobs! Per aspera ad astra.

John S. Langford
AIAA President (2018–2020)

Highlights and Challenges, 2018–2020