The Jet Age (1958 - Today)

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The First "A" in NASA

NASA is usually associated with spaceflight, but its first "A" stands for Aeronautics. NASA conducts aeronautical research and works to improve the safety of air transportation.

NASA and the Jet Age

NASA (and its predecessor, the NACA) has created several revolutionary aeronautical technologies that have made air travel safer, more efficient, and less expensive. Today's generation of highly productive airliners has directly benefited from NASA's pioneering research.

Dr. Richard T. Whitcomb led the development of several key technologies: area rule in the 1950s and '60s, supercritical wings in the 1970s, and winglets in the 1970s and '80s. All help reduce aerodynamic drag and therefore increase fuel efficiency and range.

Winglet Flight Testing

Winglets-small vertical fins on wingtips-reduce the strength of wingtip vortices (air swirling off the ends of the wings). Most airliners feature some type of winglet to help decrease drag.

Supercritical Wing

A supercritical wing delays the formation and reduces the size of shock waves over the wing at transonic speeds (just below and above the speed of sound), the speeds at which most jetliners fly. All new large jetliners now feature this highly efficient, drag-reducing wing design.

Area Rule

Creating a more consistent total cross section-by narrowing an aircraft's fuselage where the wings join the body, for example-reduces drag at high speeds. This concept, called area rule, was first applied to jet fighters (producing their distinctive "Coke-bottle" shape) and later to such airliners as the Boeing 747, Douglas DC-8, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Concorde.

Convair 990

The Convair 990 used NASA-designed antishock bodies, or "speed pods," on each wing to reduce drag at high subsonic speeds. The pods used area rule to improve the aircraft's performance and to allow the 990 to cruise at Mach .91, just below the speed of sound.


Introduced in the 1980s, digital fly-by-wire control systems and computerized "glass cockpit" displays have made airliners more reliable, efficient, and safe.

Airbus A320

Digital fly-by-wire control systems replace hydraulically driven cables and pulleys with lighter-weight, computer-driven flight controls linked only by electrical wires. The Airbus A320 was the first airliner to use digital fly-by-wire controls. NASA pioneered this technology on its highly modified Vought F-8C.

Airbus A320 Cockpit
National Air and Space Museum Archives

In a "glass cockpit," digital electronic displays replace conventional analog instruments. This technology provides flight crews with far better instrumentation and information than ever before.

Grooved Concrete Runway Section
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Grooved Concrete Runway Section

During the 1960s, NASA developed grooved runways to channel away water and improve traction for aircraft. By reducing the effects of hydroplaning, grooved runways minimize the chance of aircraft sliding off a wet runway during landing This proved so successful that the technology has since been applied to highway design to improve safety. This section of concrete runway was used for testing by NASA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Transferred from NASA