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NASA chief discusses future of aerospace

Future breakthroughs in aerospace systems will occur only if traditionally separate disciplines -- nanotechnology, biotechnology and infotechnology -- are integrated, said NASA Administrator Dan Goldin at the System Design and Management (SDM) Distinguished Lecture Series on Complex Systems October 16. He also described elements key to a 21st-century education.

Mr. Goldin addressed a packed Wong Auditorium consisting of SDM and Leaders for Manufacturing (LFM) students, faculty and staff, among others. "Your future will be unbelievable," he said, drawing a parallel between the rapid evolution of technology and career opportunities in the 21st century. "There will be a tsunami of technological change across the planet. MIT is at the leading edge and the students in this room will help lead that change." To achieve this, he said students should cultivate a career enhanced by continuous learning, as they will be constantly challenged to develop groundbreaking ideas.

Mr. Goldin proclaimed NASA, a partner enterprise to the LFM-SDM programs, to be on the cutting edge of aerospace technology. "In the next generation, NASA will create ultra-efficient, reliable spacecraft, while decreasing costs," he said. "One project we're currently working on is the transfer of air transport technology's analog systems to more efficient digital." NASA's autonomous space vehicles of the future will be able to travel in space for up to two years, resisting adverse climates and conditions. "As 'thinking spacecraft,' they will be networked as colonies, able to exchange and interpret information, from analyzing a glitch to being able to repair themselves."

But developing such intelligent aerospace systems will only occur if three "revolutionary" technologies are integrated.

"Together, nanotechnology, biotechnology and infotechnology will overturn current patterns," said Mr. Goldin. Nanotechnology aims to create useful materials and systems through control of matter at the smallest scales. Biotechnology applies knowledge and techniques that mimic biological systems to produce engineering applications like precise molecular control. And greater progress in infotechnology will enable spacecraft to process data along a hierarchy of knowledge, just as humans do, from sensing the environment to responding accordingly.

"These three disciplines can't be separate. They must come together to form intelligent, evolvable systems," Mr. Goldin emphasized. He offered a situation ripe for benefit from integrated practices: "Presently, there are over 2,000 independent cells in American air-traffic control systems, with 18,000 air-traffic controllers trying to bring it all together as they guide flights. Wouldn't a centralized control point in cyberspace be better and safer, rather than a piecemeal system?"

Goldin offered a similar assessment of 21st-century education. "The incredible pace of change and economic pressures in high tech are creating a revolution in engineering schooling. The separate arms of academic curriculum and hands-on training must come together, to mirror market patterns. And lifelong learning will be crucial to professional success."

Goldin concluded his presentation with the mantra, "Collaborate. Integrate. Innovate. If not, you'll stagnate and evaporate." His audience responded enthusiastically.

Karl Pilon, team leader at Sikorsky Aircraft and a second year SDM student, said, "This was a terrific look at what's coming in the aerospace industry. Sikorsky shares the same goal as NASA of converting air-traffic control from analog to digital. It's reassuring to know we're working on the same challenges."

"Dan Goldin paints a vision of the future that serves as an incentive to our students in their education and careers ahead," said Paul Lagace, LFM-SDM co-director and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

Professor Tom Magnanti, a co-founder of the SDM program and dean of MIT's School of Engineering, said, "The revolutionary technologies Dan Goldin outlined as key to our future resonate beautifully with the School of Engineering's strategic thrusts in bioengineering, engineering systems, tiny technologies and information, computation and communication. Indeed, it is reassuring to observe so much convergence in our thinking about what technologies will be critical to society's future prosperity."

Mr. Goldin made his presentation during a week-long visit to campus by SDM students who are participants in MIT's first degree-granting, graduate-level program offered primarily at a distance. The students make regular trips to campus to give them the opportunity to network, take classes and seminars, and view nearby industrial sites that offer insight into how industries address complex systems.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 25, 2000.

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