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Aerospace is a career field that continues to attract many people because of its cutting-edge technology and wide range of career opportunities. Aerospace technology has made the world a smaller place. The ability to move humans in flying machines has changed culture, from the way people travel to the way they wage wars. One hundred years ago, multinational companies were nonexistent; nowadays, air travel and satellite communications have made them the trend. Air travel has also expanded the threat of foreign attack for every country in the world; today, citizens of all countries live with the knowledge that they are vulnerable from their skies. Ironically, the same technology that brought about bomber planes and missiles also has more benevolent benefits. Air travel has made it easier for people of widely different cultures to gain a better understanding of each other, thus reducing cultural barriers and the threat of war.
Aerospace also encompasses travel outside of the atmosphere. This field, astronautics, also has benefited humanity in many ways. Research in outer space has produced medical breakthroughs, improved manufacturing processes, and allowed for earlier, more accurate weather prediction, among other benefits.
Although aerospace is a relatively new industry, humans’ desire to fly and to travel into outer space dates back to ancient times. In Greek mythology the master craftman Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings for his son Icarus to use in his flight to escape from Crete. And, among Galileo Galilei’s many contributions during the Scientific Revolution were illustrations of flying machines. But it wasn't until 1903, with the Wright brothers' successful airplane flight, that humans got off the ground and the aerospace industry was born. Orville made the first flight, flying a wood, wire, and cloth airplane a distance of 120 feet. What had begun as a curiosity gathered intense interest as pilots and inventors worked to improve the Wright brothers' design. By 1911, airplanes were being used in war. At first, airplanes were used mainly for reconnaissance missions, but they were soon adapted for dropping bombs. The recognition of the value of aircraft for warfare led to intense efforts to develop the aerospace industry, and technological advances in aviation design developed at an incredible pace. In 1915, the aerospace industry in the United States was stimulated by the creation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA. After 1925, private companies began carrying airmail. Engineering improvements, such as the use of wind tunnel testing and engine and airframe design, provided faster, larger, and more durable airplanes. World War II brought further developments in aircraft. Factories and workers all over the country were mobilized to build the planes needed to fight the war, and the United States developed great expertise in building aircraft. An important innovation to modern air travel, the jet engine, had been developed by the end of the war. By the end of the 1950s, jet travel had revolutionized the airline industry, opening air travel to millions of people around the world. However, the industry could not continue to develop at such a breakneck pace. The end of the Cold War and increased cooperation in space exploration reduced the need for the federal government to pour great amounts of money into the aerospace industry. Beginning in the 1980s, orders for new aircraft, both military and commercial, began to drop dramatically. The focus of the U.S. aviation industry shifted to developing markets in foreign countries that lagged behind the United States in production and technological capabilities. Research concentrated on safety improvements and quieter, more efficient aircraft.
The beginnings of astronautics, which later would become NASA's focus, followed closely on the heels of the airplane in the early part of the 20th century. Astronautics, the science of space flight, soon revolutionized not only modern warfare but also humanity's vision of its place in the universe. Beginning with the ideas of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian schoolteacher who theorized that a rocket fueled by liquid propellants could be operated in space, the American Robert Goddard and the German Hermann Oberth developed the first liquid-propellant rockets. Goddard launched the first such rocket in 1926, with a flight that reached about 41 feet, landing 184 feet from its launch site. Soon after World War II, the Soviets launched the first successful spacecraft, Sputnik, in 1957, and the space age began.
The United States responded by creating NASA and stepping up efforts to develop craft capable of carrying humans into space. Throughout the Cold War, the space race continued, leading to the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. The two countries saw the dedication of enormous amounts of resources to the development of ever more sophisticated technology, including conventional, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, air and naval craft, and surveillance, intelligence, communications, and computer technology.
Much of the technology developed initially for defense has been adapted for commercial and civil use. Today, the majority of the work performed by NASA in space is directed at improving understanding of many biological, chemical, meteorological, and other scientific processes that can then be implemented for promoting the health and welfare of all. Developments such as the reusable space shuttle and the space station, a permanent orbiting laboratory in space, have renewed ambitions toward living and working in space. Today, two countries that distrusted each other for much of the 20th century are working together on an ambitious aerospace project, the International Space Station (ISS). The United States, Russia, and 14 other countries have combined technology and manpower to build, expand, and maintain an international space station. The ISS has become the largest, most sophisticated, and most powerful spacecraft ever built. (For information on the experiments being conducted, crew members, and other facts about the ISS, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html.)
Today the next major step in aviation is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called drones. Already in regular use by the military, UAVs are becoming popular with federal, state, and local agencies for surveillance, law enforcement, fire fighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, and other purposes. Private sector interest is also growing, where some companies envision UAVs enhancing their operations and perhaps one day even delivering goods to consumers. As of 2013, the FAA had issued 545 certificates of waiver or authorization (COAs) for public agencies to use UAVs. A great deal of controversy surrounds the use of UAV in the United States, where privacy advocates are pushing for restrictions on drone use to protect civil liberties. Despite this, use of UAVs is expected to expand rapidly in coming years.