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Essay: The History of Aerospace Engineering: From Da Vinci to NASA

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  • Published: 26 February 2023*
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  • Words: 847 (approx)
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Aerospace engineering has always been on the forefront of technology and discovery. The thought of aerospace engineering has always been around, ever since man looked up to the stars and wondered what is beyond our planet. To fully understand what aerospace engineering is first we need to go back to its origins and to do that it is necessary to understand the definition of aerospace engineering. Aerospace, as a noun, means space comprising the earth’s atmosphere and the space beyond; thus meaning that aerospace engineering is the creating or refining our vehicles used in aerospace or to manufacture of such a vehicle (Merriam-Webster). Now that we know what it is we can dive right into the history.

The earliest sketches of flight vehicles were drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci, who suggested two ideas for sustainable flight, in the 1400s. The first was a flying machine used flapping wings to imitate the flight of birds. The second idea was an aerial screw, the early version of the helicopter. Both ideas were revolutionary for that time. The field of physics has been around for much longer than Da Vinci, but he was the first one to realize that the action of compressing air, if strong enough, can lead to thrust. Leonardo da Vinci was not the only one that had his eye on the sky in all of history. Manned flight was first achieved in 1783, in a hot-air balloon designed by the French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. Aerodynamics became a factor in balloon flight when a propulsion system was created for forward movement. Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to think of this idea, which led to the development of the dirigible. A dirigible is the part of a zeppelin or a hot air balloon used to steer. Dirigible comes from the French word  “diriger” meaning “to steer”. The things that these men did for aerospace engineering did not go on noticed and were important, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that we started to envision the modern aircraft we see today (Stanzione).

The breakthrough in aircraft development came in 1799 when Sir George Cayley drew an airplane incorporating a fixed wing for lift. Because engine development was virtually nonexistent, Cayley turned to gliders, building the first successful one in 1849. Gliding flights established a database for aerodynamics and aircraft design. Otto Lilienthal, a German scientist, recorded more than 2,000 glides in a five years beginning in 1891. Lilienthal’s work was followed by the American physicist named Octave Chanute. Octave was friend of the American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, the fathers of modern manned flight. Following the first sustained flight of a engine propelled airplane in 1903, the Wright brothers refined their design, eventually selling airplanes to the U.S. Army (history)

From 1903 on, most of the advancements in the aerospace industry will be mostly used for military purposes. The first major improvements to aircraft development occurred during World War I, when aircrafts were designed and constructed for specific military missions, including dogfight, bombing, and reconnaissance missions. Aviation boomed after Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Aircrafts were getting increasingly faster, lighter, and stronger. Hugo Junkers, a German, built the first all-metal monoplane in 1910, but the design was not accepted by Boeing until 1933. A German aircraft Heinkel He 178 that made the first jet flight on August 27, 1939. Even though World War II accelerated the growth of the airplane, the jet aircraft was not introduced into service until 1944, when the British Gloster Meteor became operational, shortly followed by the German Me 262 (Loftin).

The first practical American jet was the Lockheed F-80, which entered service in 1945. The use of rocket engines for aircraft propulsion opened a new realm of flight to the aeronautical engineer. In 1947 James Hart Wyld built a rocket engine powered supersonic research aircraft, the Bell X-1. The first of its kind it was flown by the U.S. Air Force captain Charles E. Yeager (USAF).

NASA was created on Oct. 1, 1958 to research and build vehicles for spaceflight and aeronautics. Everybody was focused on the military aspects of aeronautical studies, but it wasn’t until NASA came along that they were explicitly told that they were to research spaceflight and aeronautics for civilians. The U.S., by creating NASA, were the first to commercialize space flight. Since 2011, NASA has been relying on the Russian space program to transport astronauts the space. Now, the United States government has commissioned private companies like SpaceX and lockheed Martin to commence research in the aerospace field (NASA).

Work cited

Administrator, NASA Content. “NASA’s Beginning.” NASA, NASA, 25 Mar. 2015, www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_667.html.

“Bell X-1B.” National Museum of the USAF, 9 Oct. 2015, www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/195763/bell-x-1b/.

Loftin, Laurence K. “The Evolution of Modern Aircrafts.” NASA, NASA, www.hq.nasa.gov/pao/History/SP-468/cover.htm.

Stanzione, Kaydon Al. “Aerospace Engineering.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Nov. 2016, www.britannica.com/technology/aerospace-engineering.

“Wright Brothers.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/topics/inventions/wright-brothers.

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