Colloquium: December 2, 2014

Coming of Age – NASA’s Role in Lightweight Composite Structures for Flight Vehicles

Darrel Tenney

(Video of the lecture) within the Langley firewall only

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 at 2:00 P.M. in the Pearl Young Theater


Materials and energy are the basic ingredients on which all civilizations have advanced. The development of new and improved materials has coincided with changes in society, including differing agricultural practices, housing, religious beliefs, and artistic styles. The greatest impact of advancements in materials has been on tools and transportation.

Progress in the use of materials started with wood, a naturally occurring composite material, transitioned to metals (The Bronze Age, The Iron Age) and has come full circle to engineered composite materials such as fiber reinforced polymers, metals and ceramics. The primary driver for the development of advanced composite materials has been desire to reduce weight and increase performance of engineered structures. This has been accomplished by embedding ultrahigh strength and stiffness fibers, compared to other materials, in weaker matrices. The ability to tailor the properties by alignment of the fibers in primary load directions gives the structural engineer greater flexibility to optimize the structure for flight loads.

NASA has played a major role in the development of advanced composites for aircraft and space launch vehicles. The major obstacles encountered in developing and applying composites on advanced flight vehicles, lessons learned, and future challenges for development of next generation materials with embedded intelligence and adaptive capabilities will be discussed.


Darrel R. Tenney (Retired NASA) is a former Chief of the Materials Division (9yrs.) and former Director of the Vehicle Systems Program (9yrs.) at NASA Langley Research Center. During his 30 year career at NASA he also held positions as Senior Research Engineer, Head of the Environmental Effects Branch, Head of the Applied Materials Branch, and Assistant Chief of the Materials Division. As a member of the Senior Executive Service, he was the recipient of two Presidential Rank Awards for outstanding technical leadership and personal contributions to NASA. He holds a Ph.D. in Material Science from Virginia Tech.

He has authored or co-authored more than 80 technical papers and was frequently invited as a keynote speaker at National and International Conferences. Dr. Tenney is a Fellow of the American Society of Materials (ASM) and a past chairman of its Aerospace Technical Division. He was lead author on a recent book for NASA entitled Structural Framework for Flight which examined the many contributions NASA made to the development of Advanced Composite Materials and identified grand challenges for future work. The requests for this book far exceeded the numbers of copies available. This book is currently being translated into Mandarin Chinese. He is currently writing another book for NASA documenting Langley’s many contributions to the development and application of metallic materials and structures for Aircraft and Space Launch Vehicles.

Shelia Thibeault is hosting our speaker this month.