Colloquium: 2018-09-11

Hypersonic Flight: Challenges, Successes, and Opportunities

Mark Lewis

September 11, 2018 at 2:00 P.M. in the Pearl Young Theater


Vehicles have been flying at hypersonic speeds – speeds in excess of Mach 5 – for almost seventy years. Every spacecraft that has returned to Earth from space, or entered another planet’s atmosphere, including the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, the Space Shuttle, and many unmanned probes, has flown at hypersonic speeds. Those craft were all blunt shapes, designed to slow down using drag in the atmosphere. There is another part of the hypersonic flight envelope that includes slender, low-drag forms that can enable sustained maneuvering flight in the atmosphere. Such flyers could perform a variety of missions, from high-speed reconnaissance and delivery, to aircraft-like access to space. This talk will review some of the technical challenges associated with long-duration hypersonic flight. Recent programs and developments will be discussed, with an eye towards how they brought us closer to practical hypersonic flight. Uses of hypersonic vehicles for both military and civilian missions will also be considered, along with ideas for future R&D investments. Finally, efforts in the United States will be compared to work under way in other countries, suggesting that the cyclical nature of our investments in research, test facilities, and people has allowed other countries to catch up to us, and in some cases exceed, our capabilities in hypersonic development.


Mark Lewis is the Director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) at the Institute for Defense Analyses. STPI provides analysis of national and international science and technology issues to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House and other Federal agencies including NASA. Prior to this, Dr. Lewis was the longest-serving U.S. Air Force Chief Scientist in history (2004 to 2008) and a faculty member at the University of Maryland for 24 years. Dr. Lewis has authored more than 300 technical publications.