Boeing Frontiers
November 2003
Volume 02, Issue 07
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Historical Perspective

Century of Flight

High technolgy and new frontiers


Progress, despite a recessionThe 1980s was a decade of high technology and new frontiers symbolized by the Space Shuttle, stealth planes, advanced computers that helped pilots to fly, and a plan to build a space based missile shield that would bankrupt a nation and end the Cold War.

Fuel efficiency was the watchword for commercial aviation's next generation of airplanes. Boeing built the 767, which entered service in 1982, and the Boeing 757, which began service in 1983, for economy, designing them around large high-bypass turbofan engines and an advanced-technology wing. The airplanes pioneered the concept of commonality by using many common parts and sharing a common advanced flight deck. The advanced flight deck of the 757 and 767 was designed to be operated by a crew of two and featured a computerized, fully integrated, flight management system and digital electronic displays.

A number of new planes would follow, including the 737-300/400/500, the 747-400, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90 series and the A310 and A320 series from Airbus.

On April 21, 1981, decades of research into a reusable spacecraft finally became a reality when the Shuttle Orbiter Columbia made its first of four orbital flight tests. The Space Shuttle had its first operational mission in November 1982, when Columbia deployed two communications satellites.

The Shuttle program quickly made important contributions to scientific research and also showed the feasibility of working in space. The program also achieved historic milestones when Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly into space on STS-7 and on the next mission Guy Bluford Jr. became the first African American in space.

The successful Shuttle program came to a tragic halt on Jan. 28, 1986, with the loss of Orbiter Challenger and its crew seconds after lift off. A two-year-long investigation found that the failure of a pressure seal in one of the solid rocket boosters was to blame. With the conclusion of the investigation and modifications to the booster the Shuttle program was ready to start again and on Sept. 30, 1988, Discovery returned to space.

During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration focused military aviation and space technology toward winning the Cold War. A previous decision to cancel the long-running B-1 program was reversed, giving the Strategic Air Command a high-speed airborne deterrent. Terrain-following, air-launched cruise missiles were put into production, giving both the Boeing B-52 and the North American B-1 long-range nuclear strike capability.

Along with these programs, the United States also invested in super secret, high-technology programs called “black” programs. One of the best known is the development of radar-evading or “stealth” technology that resulted in the Northrop B-2 Spirit, also known as the “Stealth Bomber.”

Another defense program that gained a great deal of publicity because of its ambitious goals and high cost was the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars.” SDI was to be a space-based missile shield that would defend the world, including the Soviet Union, from the threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union efforts to maintain parity or counter all of these technological advances, especially SDI, came at too high of a cost for the Soviet economy, ultimately contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War.

Even in the high-tech era of the 1980s, there was still room for old fashioned aviation pioneers who conquered records. Richard “Dick” Rutan, a visionary designer of unique experimental aircraft as well as the Beech Starship, designed and built the Voyager, an all-composite, extremely fuel-efficient, twin-engine airplane. In December 1986, Voyager carried Bert Rutan (Dick's brother) and Jeana Yeageron a 24,986-mile journey that was the first non-stop, un-refueled, around-the-world flight.

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