“Toward More Bird-Like Flight: Thinking Outside the Box”

A great TEDxNASA talk by someone I’m proud to call my friend and colleague. Al’s talk speaks for itself, so I won’t bother summarizing it here. However, I will add that the ideas in this talk have led to one of the most innovative and exciting things going on at NASA Dryden right now, and I’m not even sure its an official project.

A team of engineers, designers, and machinists, as well as some incoming students from the NASA Aeronautics Academy, are actually going to be building and flying two Horten wing gliders as research-instrumented RPVs here in the high desert. The PDR was yesterday, and what I saw was a design that is smart, lean, and suitable for rapid prototyping.

Al’s approach to project management is Antoine de St. Exupery’s quote personified:

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

(If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.)

It works. Everyone in that room is inspired; rather than needing to be pushed to work, most have to be pulled back from going too crazy. Decisions are enabled at the lowest level that makes sense, and ideas emerge and mesh at the front lines. This is no small matter either… applying these ideas to wing and propulsion design lead to massive practical fuel savings for the whole aviation industry, and Dryden might be the first to push this envelope and grab some flight data. 

At a time when NASA is being criticized for being a lumbering bureaucracy well past it’s prime, it’s so refreshing to see that grassroots and groundbreaking projects can organically form and even thrive at Dryden when the right people are given enough free rein.

You can read Al Bowers’ own perspective on his blog post for Dryden.




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