Owning the 21st century

Amir S. Gohardani explains how the study of science, technology and society can point the way to sounder decisions in the aerospace industry

The history of the aerospace sector shows many cases of technical advances leading to remarkable societal changes, from the advent of jet aircraft to geosynchronous communications satellites to the GPS constellation. In the U.S., researchers target the next breakthroughs like these by advancing concepts along a technology readiness level scale. Doing so requires considerable investment by government agencies, universities, venture capitalists and corporations through their internal research and development funds. Not surprisingly, debates sometimes erupt around which concepts should be pushed up that readiness scale. Complex projects sometimes overrun their budgets, making spending choices even harder.

Those involved in spending decisions would be wise to consider seeking guidance from an emerging branch of study called science, technology and society, or STS. This branch considers how cultural, political and social values affect scientific research and technological innovation and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture. Scrutinizing technical advances under the light of STS can help the U.S. or any technically minded nation avoid unnecessary cost buildup while also setting the stage for entirely new technical directions and products. In this approach, the societal impact of a technology should be fully weighed before seeking to advance it up the scale.

The challenge of the 21st century might well be to achieve long-term, positive global impacts without overspending. Consider a case from outside the aerospace sector, the construction of the Montreal Olympic Stadium. Its cost exceeded its original 1973 budget estimate by an astonishing 1,990 percent. In my sector of aerospace, development of the Hubble Space Telescope exceeded its original cost by 525 percent. There is no doubt that Hubble has opened the eyes of humans to the wonders of the universe and inspired future space exploration endeavors. The Montreal stadium hosted the 1976 Olympics that brought enormous international awareness. Some projects righteously earn their global impact over time. In today’s environment, however, projects that show such overruns may not be carried to fruition. Budgets are strained, and patience is wearing thin. Even if occasional budget overruns have been accepted in the past, such practice is not sustainable in the long run.

Focusing on STS and societal benefits also points to an interdisciplinary approach to research and development as a strategy for maximizing value. Incongruously, even though each domain of STS is explicitly scrutinized within its own track, often times, many of the shared denominators and emerging subjects stemming from a fusion of disciplines are neglected. The U.S. aerospace industry cannot afford such oversights. The industry has never found itself in a more critical position in terms of budgetary limitations, technical hurdles, an aging aerospace workforce and competition from abroad. The interconnectivity among different disciplines must be considered to an even larger extent than has been the case to date.

Budgetary limitations

For the U.S., recent years have brought budget sequestration, reduced funding and unfunded aerospace programs. Some programs have suffered significant consequences, including workforce reductions. Whether the challenges ahead involve development of the sixth-generation fighter aircraft or identification of the most efficient space propulsion technologies for interplanetary travel, today’s budget limitations are forcing managers to minimize product testing and risk mitigation. This is adding complexity to the task of balancing technical feasibility and program execution.

These difficulties are not the complete story, however. The challenges are sparking a wave of innovation, trends and cost optimization that is sweeping through the aerospace sector. The confluence of innovations and technical out-of-the-box solutions has generated secondary waves of efficient program management and program execution practices to meet the constantly increasing demands of the aerospace industry.

Most recently, utilization of commercial off-the-shelf or COTS products has been widely adopted as yet another efficient cost-saving strategy. However, COTS product obsolescence in the aerospace industry, in addition to failures of meeting program requirements as a result of COTS implementation, have proved to carry a tremendous negative impact on meeting program objectives. In an exemplary case, COTS products that inconsistently replace radiation-hardened electronic components for space applications could potentially jeopardize entire space missions if they fall short on technical radiation requirements. Therefore, budgetary limitations initiate new challenges with adjacent areas overlapping the technical domain. For instance, if COTS products implemented in a GEO communication satellite lead to its failure, a new communication channel will be lost. Hence, this exemplifies how technical decisions influence other elements in society.

In the future, if overall global aerospace and defense sector revenues decline, as a result of decreased revenues in the defense subsector, and cuts suffered in global military expenditure, mainly from the United States, in these contexts, program cancellations and delays in major weapons programs will affect the revenues of the top defense contractors. The global revenue trends are further dependent on the strength of main currencies around the world, geopolitical conditions, growth or decline in global gross domestic product, commodity price fluctuations (especially crude oil), demands for passenger travel, access to space, expenditures on global defense budgets, as well as the overall growths and declines in the commercial and defense aerospace subsectors, to name a few examples.

Technical hurdles

Many groundbreaking innovations, such as commercial passenger flight, have developed in societies at a steady, manageable pace. Yet, occasionally, technical advances arrive at a more rapid pace than global communities can embrace. Technical hurdles do not necessarily spring from a lack of willingness to innovate. Rather, they demonstrate a need to expand technical horizons beyond specific technical solutions. This can be done by adopting a multipurpose approach that creates a series of new information channels across disciplines.

During the most recent passages of history pertaining to unmanned aircraft, the first objective was to enable onboard pilotless aircraft. The collective brain children of George Cayley, sometimes known as the father of aviation and famous for the first successful human glider; Felix Du Temple de La Croix, developer of one of the early powered aircraft of any sort — a powered model plane; Nikola Tesla, inventor and designer of the radio remote control vehicle torpedo; and other prominent individuals, the concepts of unmanned aerial vehicles were transferred from visions to reality. Aerial torpedoes opened the technology door to decoys, drones and ultimately cruise missiles.

Through the launch of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones for the general public, a series of privacy and safety concerns rapidly emerged in remarkable volumes to reignite legislative actions and a new anti-drone market driven by factors such as increased security breach incidences of unidentified drones and increased terrorism and illicit activities. Anti-drone systems are specifically designed to counter unwarranted intrusion of unmanned aerial vehicles. It is estimated the anti-drone market will reach a billion dollars within the next decade and this illustrates how technological solutions can be expanded into new streams of innovation, even if they had been considered during the development phases of the core technology.

Comprehensive reviews of different disciplines and estimations of hypothetical technical impacts on society enable new paths for innovation and a head start to state-of-the-art technologies. The relationships are often cause and effect. Consider, for example, the research underway toward removing debris from orbit. These initiatives were triggered by congestion in space and the realization that anyone’s satellites are at risk. Recognizing cause-and-effect scenarios and taking a holistic view of STS can help decision-makers meet the future demands of the aerospace and defense disciplines.

Aging workforce

For aerospace engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an employment growth of 6 percent by 2026 from a 2016 benchmark. This trend alongside an aging workforce calls for further engagement of young individuals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. As aircraft are being redesigned to reduce noise and pollution and to raise fuel efficiency, demand for research and development is likely to be sustained. Nonetheless, growth will be tempered as many of these engineers are employed in manufacturing industries that are projected to grow slowly or even decline. Conversely, as governments refocus their space efforts, new companies are emerging to provide access to space beyond the access afforded by standard space agencies. These visions certainly have led to a new era for U.S. space capabilities. Companies alongside the U.S. are exploring novel low-orbit and beyond-Earth-orbit capabilities for human and robotic space travel. Adopting an all-inclusive STS approach could help lead the U.S. aerospace and defense subsectors into an even brighter future.

Editor’s note about the NASA photo at the top of this page: Even when results are amazing, as is the case with the Hubble Space Telescope, cost overruns are not a sustainable practice.

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Amir S. Gohardani, an AIAA associate fellow, is the chair of AIAA’s Society and Aerospace Technology Integration and Outreach Committee and the chair of the AIAA Orange County section in California. President of the nonprofit educational organization Springs of Dreams Corp., he has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom and Master of Science degrees in aeronautical, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and a Bachelor of Science degree in vehicle engineering.

A man with dark hair wearing a black suit and white shirt smiles in a close-up outdoor portrait with trees in the background.
Amir S. Gohardani. Credit: Courtesy

Owning the 21st century