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A British Airways 747-400 lands in Las Vegas (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

A Look at NASA’s Contributions to Aviation

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commonly known as NASA, celebrated the 50th anniversary of a major achievement last weekend. It marks 50 years since the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, the first time humans set foot on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin being the first men on the moon. While many know NASA to be the global leader in just about everything that comes to space, many of the innovations from NASA have also impacted our Earthly lives in many ways.

Just about every industry has been touched by some innovation from NASA, whether it be new healthcare technology or high tech coatings someway we are benefiting from the work of the great men and women that lead our space program. The aviation industry is no exception with several NASA innovations being used to help keep the flying public safe every day. Here are just two examples of NASA’s contributions

Electro-mechanical Deicing

This new method of deicing the wings of an aircraft was developed by scientists at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and at Cox & Company Inc. This system involves two main parts, electro-thermal systems at the wing’s leading edge and electromechanical systems that are built into the airfoil.

First, the electro-thermal systems melt the ice and keep it in a liquid state to the point where it will flow downstream and eventually freeze where the aircraft is less sensitive to ice accumulation.

Then behind the heated systems are a series of coils that are built into the airfoil. Electrical currents are sent through the coils in a specific sequence to generate a magnetic field that causes the coils to airfoil to flex and shake the ice free. Though this sounds a bit dramatic, the movement of the aircraft skin is only about 0.025 inches and millions of cycles of testing have shown that it doesn’t have an issue of metal fatigue and actually has a longer service life than rubber boots, another system used for ice management on aircraft.

Since this technology has to be built into the wings of aircraft it hasn’t made much headway onto many planes until it’s included in aircraft design. However, it is showing promise in smaller general aviation aircraft such as the Raytheon’s Premier I business jet.

Runway Grooving

Scientists at the NASA Langley Research Center developed a grooving system that helped reduce skidding by aircraft during wet weather conditions. Scientists were able to prove that cutting thin grooves across concrete runways created channels for excess water to drain off reducing the risk of aircraft skidding on runways. This is in addition to helping reduce stopping distance of aircraft and reducing sensitivity to crosswinds.

Grooves are cut into runways transverse to the direction of travel and while a quite simplistic idea, it is actually quite clever and effective. The grooves can actually create similar friction levels to dry conditions through a higher level of contact between tires and pavement.

It’s also been shown that worn down aircraft tires actually brake better on a grooved runway than new tires would on a non-grooved runway on wet pavement.

These are just two examples of NASA’s long-standing contribution to society. The celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landings should remind us that there is still a lot out there to explore and the advancement of space travel positively impacts us all


  • Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

Hemal Gosai
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