NASA aims for quieter, and greener, planes by '25

LOS ANGELES — They might be best known for space travel, but NASA officials are also determined to shape the future of commercial aviation.

The agency says airliners need to be quieter, greener and more fuel-efficient.

To attain those goals, NASA handed out nearly $6 million in contracts this week to two aerospace giants: Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.

NASA's aim is to develop technology that would enable future aircraft to burn 50 percent less fuel than current models, cut harmful emissions in half and shrink the geographic areas affected by obnoxious airport noise by 83 percent.

The agency hopes to develop concepts for airliners that could go into service by 2025.

Engineers from Lockheed's famed Skunk Works research complex in Palmdale, Calif., won about $3 million to develop the concept. Northrop engineers, working out of the company's advanced aeronautic research center in El Segundo, Calif., were given $2.65 million.

The engineers will have 12 months to develop a concept for an aircraft that can fly near the speed of sound, have a range of 7,000 miles, and carry up to 100,000 pounds of either passengers or cargo. But don't expect the traditional "tube-and-wing" design for the aircraft's wings and fuselage. This project is all about thinking outside the box.

When Massachusetts Institute of Technology's department of aeronautics and astronautics presented its vision of greener commercial planes to NASA earlier this year—part of a $2.1 million research contract — some bizarre designs were proposed, including one shaped like a boomerang.

The university said commercial aircraft design needed to change, much like the changes in automobile design in the past 50 years to become faster and more efficient.