Pursuing cleaner and leaner alternatives to conventional turbofan engines

Rubén Del Rosario, manager for advanced air transport technology at NASA's Glenn Research Center

In 2015, 3.44 billion people worldwide traveled by airplanes. Traffic among U.S. carriers rose fivefold from 1970. Yet even today, the vast majority of those flights are powered by petroleum, specifically kerosene-based jet fuel for turbine engines. It’s Rubén Del Rosario’s job to do something about it. He leads the group at NASA focused on generation-skipping technologies for fixed-wing subsonic commercial aircraft. The challenge: Pursue cleaner, leaner and quieter alternatives to conventional turbofan engines. Kyung M. Song spoke with Del Rosario.

How did you become a NASA researcher?

I grew up in Puerto Rico, where I developed a passion for sports, particularly baseball, volleyball and basketball. While others were perfecting their shot or hitting, I kept wondering how a curveball worked or why shooting the ball with a backward spin made for better shots. That led me to my interest in becoming an engineer, always with an interest in airplanes, but I wasn’t clear on how to pursue a career in this field. It wasn’t until I registered for a workshop on aeropropulsion that a professor first talked to me about NASA Lewis Research Center (now NASA Glenn) and its history in propulsion research and development. My dream started to take shape soon after, when recruiters from NASA Lewis visited the University of Puerto Rico and I was recruited as a test engineer. Since then, I have had the privilege of leading one of NASA’s largest research projects, and I’m currently part of NASA’s Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. I’ve been rotating through various jobs for the last 18 months and looking forward to future leadership opportunities.

What management advice do you try to follow?

The first was probably from my own parents, who advised me to “always assume that people are trying to do their best and mean well, even if they fail to do it.” Recently, I heard a senior NASA leader say, “always assume good intent.” This has protected me from falling into wrong first impressions. The same official also talked about the importance of “listening without the intent of talking.” I believe that the majority of the time, the primary cause of failed communication is not in transmission, but in receiving.

Imagine it’s 2050. How do jetliners differ from those flying today?

There will be aspects of aviation that will be absolutely different than today and others in which the advances will not be quite visible to the naked eye. The airplanes of the future will not be the traditional tube-and-wing configurations, but highly integrated propulsion and airframes systems. These will be hybrid electric propulsion airplanes using less than a third of the fuel and energy of today’s airplanes, with negligible pollution and so quiet that they cannot be heard outside of the airport’s perimeters. They also will be more autonomous, largely eliminating human-induced accidents.

Rubén Del Rosario. Credit: Courtesy photo

Pursuing cleaner and leaner alternatives to conventional turbofan engines