Jan Wörner Blog | 01. March 2010

Aerospace technology – revolutionary or evolutionary?

At the Science and Technology Day at the Berlin-Brandenburg Science Academy (Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften; BBAW), lectures were given on the subject of development in nature and technology. I was invited to present a paper dealing with evolution and revolution in aerospace technologies. This was, as my preparation showed me, a very exciting challenge indeed …

It was the first time that BBAW had ever held a Science and Technology Day. Guest speakers included technologists, IT specialists and people from the Arts, to explore the subject matter from as many angles as possible. With a certain nonchalance, I agreed to deliver a lecture on the topic of 'Aerospace technology – revolutionary or evolutionary?' This promise was made knowing that I would be able to use the vast wealth of documents from previous lectures on this subject. I retained this confident assumption until about one week before the event and before my first attempt to draw up a structure and line of argument for the lecture.

Evolution und RevolutionThe first doubts as to the feasibility of writing this lecture emerged when it came to defining the two terms evolution and revolution. In light of the many variations (astronomical, historical, political), I decided in favour of the technical approach. Evolution involves a virtually continuous series of selection mechanisms, whereas revolution entails a sudden change in substance, or in the consequences of that change in substance.

With the first hurdle behind, which in hindsight appears trivial, the path before me opened up more clearly. You can examine various different areas for evolutionary and/or revolutionary aspects to cast light on the question posed by the topic of this lecture. Of course, many of the individual steps in technological development are so dependent on one another and are often so tiny that the term evolution appears to fit, also in the aerospace sector. On the other hand, there are of course some revolutionary points to consider. The dream of flight, born of watching birds in the air, required a revolutionary development to turn it into reality. One development followed by many further innovations, culminating in techniques such as laminar flow and active noise reduction. These entail such a leap in technological development that the term revolution would seem quite appropriate. A similar principle applies to developments such as the coating of turbine blades with ceramic materials – when these are transferred to another field, such as the manufacturing of dental crowns.

Vom Bohrgerät zum Akkuschrauber

The same is true of spaceflight. Without a natural example to work from, mankind has succeeded in driving forward developments which enable us, the first life form on this planet to do so, to 'journey' into Earth's orbit and further afield. Many technological innovations need to be developed in order to fulfil the dream of travel into outer space. Despite the fact that the Teflon-coated pan did not originate on any aerospace programme, NASA has already demonstrated that more than 1600 product innovations can be traced directly to space research, including the battery-powered screwdriver, which met the challenge of obtaining drill core samples on the Moon without a socket for electrical power. However, space travel has also dramatically extended our understanding of Earth, the Solar System and of outer space and has – in the same way that aviation has given us all greater mobility – induced tremendous changes in our view of ourselves.

The conclusion to be drawn from my lecture was simple: it is not possible to answer the question – 'Is aerospace revolutionary or evolutionary?' – by choosing one or the other. Instead, it has to be answered with a statement: 'Aerospace is both evolutionary and revolutionary'.

Image credits: DLR (top and middle), NASA / Black & Decker (bottom).

Translated from the original in German.

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