Advancements in Propulsion and Energy Are Changing the Name of the Game Written 26 July 2016

Panelists: Moderator Janet Kavandi, director, NASA’s Glenn Research Center; Jay Littles, director of advanced launch vehicle propulsion, Aerojet Rocketdyne; Tom Markusic, co-founder and CEO, Firefly Space Systems; James Maughan, technical director of aero-thermal and mechanical systems, GE Global Research

By Lawrence Garrett, AIAA Web Editor

Panelists discuss "Game Changing Developments in Propulsion and Energy,” July 26, at the 2016 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Salt Lake City, UT.

Ongoing technological advancements in the propulsion and energy sector are spurring and enabling game-changing impacts on the aerospace industry as a whole and are sure to keep the future of propulsion and energy bright, a panel of experts said during the “Game Changing Developments in Propulsion and Energy” session July 26 at AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2016 in Salt Lake City. 

“Today, I don’t think we’re really short of good ideas to have game-changing effects,” said Tom Markusic, co-founder and chief executive officer of Firefly Space Systems, noting that what the industry is short on is “game-changing execution.”

Markusic said that there already exists many good ideas in propulsion and aerospace technology that have never been implemented. He suggested that the industry could do a lot if it implemented some of those ideas.

He said Firefly used “old ideas” in the design of its first flagship vehicle, Alpha — specifically the aerospike engine.

“Aerospike engines have been studied for half a century since they were identified as an effective means of nozzle and altitude compensation,” he said.

The goal, Markusic said, was to design a simple, low-cost launch vehicle, which required older technology that he thinks in some ways will be “game-changing” moving forward.

Jay Littles, director of advanced launch vehicle propulsion at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said the idea of leaving Earth, going beyond and attempting to become an interplanetary species is game-changing in its own right.

Littles noted that there are already a tremendous number of technology developments that are changing the way business is being done now and those will define what our near-future will be. He mentioned cross-propulsion, electric propulsion and nuclear-thermal propulsion.

Noting a specific benefit of this advancing technology, Littles said that with a “happy marriage” between advanced electric propulsion and nuclear-thermal propulsion, hardware could be pre-positioned in space for future missions using electric propulsion, while nuclear-thermal propulsion could then be used for the manned portion of the mission into deep space.

Littles also mentioned the significance and impact of the development of the commercial space industry in recent years.

“It’s changing the way we’re doing propulsion development,” he said.

James Maughan, technical director of aero-thermal and mechanical systems at GE Global Research, said that some of the propulsion technologies that GE has been focused on in recent years may not be game-changing but certainly have progressed over the years. He pointed to GE’s LEAP engine, the only one certified for Boeing’s 737 MAX

Maughan said that there have been enormous technology advances in this engine — “too many to list,” he said — but highlighted the engine’s 3-D-printed fuel nozzles and advances in materials technology.

“These advances in aviation directly poured over into our power business,” he said.

Speculating on the future, Maughan suggested that other propulsion technologies, such as open-rotor propulsion, could be “huge” and could be a leap to a new technology growth curve.

The panelists were all optimistic about the future of the propulsion and energy sector and how game-changing technologies continue to rapidly change and advance the industry.  

“None of us can see the future,” Maughan said. “None of us knows for sure what’s going to happen, but from where I sit at GE ... I think the future for us and for our industry on both the power side and on the propulsion side is very bright.”


All 2016 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum Videos