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TEKS: 3.5A, 4.4H, 5.4B


Transforming Travel

Airplanes as we know them are about to change. Hop on board!

Lockheed Martin

A design for a new supersonic plane created by NASA and the company Lockheed Martin.

Ever since the Wright brothers took flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, air travel has become the quickest way to get around. Planes have come a long way since then—becoming safer and speedier than ever before. Now 3.3 billion travelers fly in a year, and that number keeps rising. But with more passengers comes a steeper toll on the environment. Engineers are hard at work figuring out the future of flight. 

The Wright brothers first took flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Ever since, air travel has become the quickest way to get around. Planes have come a long way since then. They are safer and speedier than ever before. Now 3.3 billion travelers fly in a year. That number keeps rising. But with more passengers comes a steeper toll on the environment. Engineers are hard at work. They're figuring out the future of flight.

Flight Problems

In the next 20 years, airline travel is expected to more than double worldwide—increasing to 7 billion passengers by 2034. It would take a lot of fuel to carry so many travelers. 

During a flight, a passenger jet can burn hundreds of tons of fuel. This creates air pollution. As airplane use increases, pollution increases as well. 

To address these challenges, NASA is designing three types of planes that fly faster and use less fuel. These jets look different than today’s planes and work in different ways. “There are some revolutionary new ideas that we’re really excited about,” says Dan Vicroy, a flight engineer at NASA.

In the next 20 years, airline travel is expected to more than double worldwide. It will increase to 7 billion passengers by 2034. This means a lot of fuel to carry so many travelers.

During a flight, a passenger jet can burn hundreds of tons of fuel. This creates air pollution. As airplane use increases, pollution increases too.

NASA is trying to address these challenges. They are designing three types of planes that fly faster and use less fuel. These jets look different than today's planes. They also work in different ways. "There are some revolutionary new ideas that we're really excited about," says Dan Vicroy. He is a flight engineer at NASA.

Plane Clip Art by Polylingua

Supersonic Speeds

A long, thin aircraft shoots across the sky. With a loud CRACK, it rattles windows and startles people on the ground as it zips by. 

The plane is supersonic. That means it flies faster than the speed of sound, which is about 760 miles per hour. Supersonic planes can fly across the country in about two hours. That’s more than twice as fast as a regular passenger jet! 

A long, thin aircraft shoots across the sky. It makes a loud CRACK. It rattles windows. It startles people on the ground as it zips by.

The plane is supersonic. That means it flies faster than the speed of sound, which is about 760 miles per hour. Supersonic planes can fly across the country in about two hours. That's more than twice as fast as a regular passenger jet! 

In 1947, U.S. pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly at supersonic speeds. Today, only a few military planes go that fast. The main reason is that the planes are extremely loud. When one of these planes zooms through the air, it causes a sudden change in the surrounding air molecules. The disturbed molecules form shock waves that sound like a clap of thunder. That noise is called a sonic boom. 

The engineering company Lockheed Martin is trying to build a much quieter supersonic plane, which could be used for passenger air travel. It would fly at 1.4 times the speed of sound. Its sonic boom would sound as loud as shutting a car door. 

In 1947, U.S. pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly at supersonic speeds. Today, only a few military planes go that fast. The main reason is that the planes are extremely loud. When one of these planes zooms through the air, it causes a sudden change in the surrounding air molecules. The disturbed molecules form shock waves. They sound like a clap of thunder. That noise is called a sonic boom.

The engineering company Lockheed Martin is trying to build a much quieter supersonic plane. It could be used for passenger air travel. It would fly at 1.4 times the speed of sound. Its sonic boom would sound as loud as shutting a car door.

Robert Ferguson/Boeing

A blended wing concept plane developed by NASA and the airplane company Boeing in the 2000s.

Wing Seat

Today, airplane passengers can choose an aisle, a window, or a middle seat. But someday soon, people might be able to sit in the plane’s wing! 

Designers are working on blended wing planes, which combine the body and wings into one wide shape. “It’s like a pancake,” says Vicroy. The shape is aerodynamic. That lets the plane easily slice through the sky without slowing down. 

Blended wing planes would be made out of lighter materials, like aluminum. Their light weight and aerodynamic shape would allow them to fly using less energy. The planes could use one-third less fuel than today’s jets.

Blended wing planes won’t take off for at least five years. NASA is working on models. “The future of aviation is heading in that direction,” says Vicroy.

Today, airplane passengers can choose an aisle, a window, or a middle seat. But someday soon, people might be able to sit in the plane's wing!

Designers are working on blended wing planes. This design combines the body and wings into one wide shape. "It's like a pancake," says Vicroy. The shape is aerodynamic. That lets the plane easily slice through the sky without slowing down.

Blended wing planes would be made out of lighter materials, like aluminum. Their light weight and aerodynamic shape would allow them to fly using less energy. The planes could use one-third less fuel than today's jets.

Blended wing planes won't take off for at least five years. NASA is working on models. "The future of aviation is heading in that direction," says Vicroy.    

NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

The Maxwell plane has 14 electric engines that are light enough to sit across its wings.

Electric Flight

Batteries power a lot of every-day things, like remote controls and flashlights. Soon, they could power airplanes. NASA engineers are building a small propeller plane called Maxwell. It’s one of the first battery-powered planes. 

Maxwell holds only a single pilot and operates using 14 battery-powered motors. Researchers will test the plane this year. They hope Maxwell will use 40 percent less energy than similar-sized planes.

If this trend continues, all-electric planes may take flight in 10 to 20 years, says Sean Clarke, an aviation engineer at NASA.

Batteries power a lot of every-day things. Remote controls and flashlights are some examples. Soon, they could power airplanes. NASA engineers are building a small propeller plane called Maxwell. It's one of the first battery-powered planes.

Maxwell holds only a single pilot. It operates using 14 battery-powered motors. Researchers will test the plane this year. They hope Maxwell will use 40 percent less energy than similar-size planes.

This trend could continue. If so, all-electric planes may take flight in 10 to 20 years, says Sean Clarke. He is an aviation engineer at NASA.

The Maxwell electric plane can fly at a top speed of 175 miles per hour. How many miles can it travel in 3 hours? Write and solve an equation.

The Maxwell electric plane can fly at a top speed of 175 miles per hour. How many miles can it travel in 3 hours? Write and solve an equation.

Let’s say the plane can go 1,000 miles before the batteries need to be recharged. Would the Maxwell plane be able to return home from the flight mentioned in part A without recharging? Why or why not?

Let’s say the plane can go 1,000 miles before the batteries need to be recharged. Would the Maxwell plane be able to return home from the flight mentioned in part A without recharging? Why or why not?

An empty Maxwell plane weighs 1,764 pounds. The maximum weight the plane can handle at takeoff is 2,742 pounds. If the cargo weighs 788 pounds, what would be the maximum weight for the pilot?  

An empty Maxwell plane weighs 1,764 pounds. The maximum weight the plane can handle at takeoff is 2,742 pounds. If the cargo weighs 788 pounds, what would be the maximum weight for the pilot?  

Let’s say a design for a blended wing plane includes some rows with 3 seats across and some rows with 2 seats. The front of the plane has 16 rows with 2 seats each. The back of the plane has 54 rows with 3 seats each and 16 rows with 2 seats each. What is the total number of seats that the blended wing plane can hold? 

Let’s say a design for a blended wing plane includes some rows with 3 seats across and some rows with 2 seats. The front of the plane has 16 rows with 2 seats each. The back of the plane has 54 rows with 3 seats each and 16 rows with 2 seats each. What is the total number of seats that the blended wing plane can hold? 

NASA estimates that an 800-passenger plane can burn through 147 tons of fuel during a one-way flight. A blended wing plane uses 1/3 less fuel to cover the same distance. How much fuel is that in tons?

NASA estimates that an 800-passenger plane can burn through 147 tons of fuel during a one-way flight. A blended wing plane uses 1/3 less fuel to cover the same distance. How much fuel is that in tons?

If both planes were to fly a round-trip flight, how much more fuel would a large passenger plane use than the blended wing plane? 

If both planes were to fly a round-trip flight, how much more fuel would a large passenger plane use than the blended wing plane? 

The Concorde, a passenger plane that could fly at twice the speed of sound, flew from 1976 to 2003. The speed of sound decreases as you go higher above the ground. At sea level, it’s about 760 miles per hour. The Concorde’s top speed was 1,334 miles per hour when it flew at 60,000 feet. That speed is about twice the speed of sound at that height. How much faster is the speed of sound at sea level than at 60,000 feet?

The Concorde, a passenger plane that could fly at twice the speed of sound, flew from 1976 to 2003. The speed of sound decreases as you go higher above the ground. At sea level, it’s about 760 miles per hour. The Concorde’s top speed was 1,334 miles per hour when it flew at 60,000 feet. That speed is about twice the speed of sound at that height. How much faster is the speed of sound at sea level than at 60,000 feet?

Let’s say airlines estimate that each adult passenger and his or her luggage weigh a total of 250 pounds. A mid-size commercial airplane can hold a maximum of 210 people. If the plane is half full, what is the estimated weight of the passengers and their bags?

Let’s say airlines estimate that each adult passenger and his or her luggage weigh a total of 250 pounds. A mid-size commercial airplane can hold a maximum of 210 people. If the plane is half full, what is the estimated weight of the passengers and their bags?

The maximum takeoff weight for the plane in part A is 187,700 pounds. This includes people, luggage, fuel, and the weight of the plane. Each of these weights varies for each flight depending on how much fuel is needed and how many people and bags are on board. Using your answer from part A, how much weight is available for fuel in pounds? The plane weighs 45 tons (Hint: 1 ton = 2,000 pounds).

The maximum takeoff weight for the plane in part A is 187,700 pounds. This includes people, luggage, fuel, and the weight of the plane. Each of these weights varies for each flight depending on how much fuel is needed and how many people and bags are on board. Using your answer from part A, how much weight is available for fuel in pounds? The plane weighs 45 tons (Hint: 1 ton = 2,000 pounds).

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