The angel in the details

On its surface, our annual Year-in-Review special issue adds up to a compendium of the nitty-gritty aerospace engineering and scientific work accomplished in 2017. We depict the often-unsung research that will make it possible for this community to continue achieving astounding operational breakthroughs, such as SpaceX reusing a rocket stage for the first time, as it did in March.

Consider for example the descriptions of novel aerodynamic measurement techniques in one article or the efforts described in another to turn the uncertain wind responses of rotorcraft into a predictive tool. These and many other projects will empower engineers of the future to achieve extraordinary breakthroughs in the years ahead.

Illuminating that kind of work is one reason this issue is valuable, but I see another reason, too. These articles provide a glimpse into the aerospace technology culture for students or those who work on the fringes of the community or even outside of it. Members of this community value data, knowledge, problem-solving and professionalism. The best of them share data and insights as much as possible. They publish articles in AIAA’s technical journals. They attend AIAA forums. They participate on technical committees. They volunteer to write articles for this special issue. They are passionate, but also fact-based. This is not to make a claim that all is perfect in this community, but these pages demonstrate that the trajectory is sound. Outliers are rare. In the years ahead, I’m confident we’ll see even more workforce inclusiveness and diversity in the aerospace profession in the U.S. and abroad, and this will fuel even more advances.

It’s refreshing to pause at the close of a tumultuous political year to remember what humans can accomplish when they operate in a culture that values respect and dedication to facts. Some of those involved in the research in these articles will no doubt shift out of engineering at some point in their careers, and they will take these values with them. Some will become business executives, entrepreneurs or leaders in government agencies. Some might even dare to enter politics. Of the 535 lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, just eight have engineering backgrounds, according to the Congressional Research Service, which analyzed Congressional Quarterly’s “Member Profiles.” It shows.

More than once as I read the articles for this special issue, I wondered, “How did they even think to try that?” Innate human creativity and originality partly explain things, but those attributes can flourish only when a culture lets them. What you see in these pieces is an aerospace culture that’s starting to fire on all cylinders. That should make us optimistic about 2018.

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.

The angel in the details