DISCOVERY AND PUSHING THE OUTSIDE OF THE ENVELOPE

In thinking about discovery one of the most frequently considered examples is that of aviation and space flight. Going from a planet of humans who have never flown (a world of 1.6 billion people in 1900) to a world of routine transatlantic passage at 38,000 feet has happened relatively quickly. Space flight developed at an even faster rate going from a world where the first satellite orbited the earth to the first man on the moon happening in only 12 years.

Given the impact of these accomplishments on humanity, aviation and space flight vernacular began to permeate layperson diction. “A-OK” made popular by NASA media representative Shorty Powers was an extension of the commonly used “Okay” because the “A” was also thought to cut through the radio static better than the “O”. 

Another common crossover term is the idea of communication loops, as in “please, keep me in the loop.” The origin of the voice loop was necessitated by the increasing complexity of space flight systems. At the advent of space flight, it was possible for everyone involved in a flight to be on one radio channel with everyone waiting their turn to talk to the person they wanted to talk to while hearing everything that everyone else was saying even though most of it probably wasn’t relevant to them. Voice loops became necessary as teams became globally dispersed and complexity and nuance of flights increased.  A voice loop would … Loops would be created for things like capsule communications and engineering. The mission controller could then plug in to the loop that was relevant for him at that moment. In space flight, voice loops were essential for supporting simultaneous conversations on multiple radio channels for people who were spatially distributed. 

The concept of a performance envelope has also crossed over in to common usage and is the one that I find the most interesting. Commonly expressed as “outside of the envelope” or “pushing the envelope,” the phrase refers to the point where performance is unknown or where performance is known to fail. Thus, the importance of the world of Flight Test.

Flight testing is an aeronautical engineering discipline that develops and gathers data during the flight of an aircraft. Flight testing has two objectives. First, to find and fix any design problems. Think of the Wright Brothers first flights and the questions that were being asked at the time: does the thing work and if not how can it be made to work? The second objective, which is particularly interesting from the perspective of discovery, is to document and verify the vehicles capabilities. Based on aircraft design things like airspeeds, maximum altitude, and maximum load weight can be estimated, but a formal process of flight testing is required to find out what the performance capabilities are in actual flight. Flight testing is necessary because varying any one of these factors will have an effect on the other two and collectively define the boundaries of performance (this is known as the “performance envelope” or “flight envelope”). For a specific aircraft the [performance envelope are graphically depicted (see figure 1) to show that for a certain weight, at a certain airspeed, and altitude, performance is estimated to stop working. This may mean the plane loses lift and stalls or it may mean that an aircraft overspeeds and the structure of the plane fails. 

 

A typical flight envelope for maneuvering speeds

A typical flight envelope for maneuvering speeds

 

In practical terms, this means a flight test team including a test pilot undertakes to probe the actual edge of the performance envelope by flying ever closer to the theoretical limits of performance. This is quite literally “pushing the outside of the envelope.”

What a fascinating inflection point for discovery -- the transition from the theoretical to the actual, moving from the expected to the known. 

What are the “flight envelopes” that we use in our lives to determine what is allowable and possible and what is not? What would happen if we go “flight testing” in a rigorous and structured way to understand in what in reality is possible?  How might we “push the outside of the envelope” to specifically define the point where the known solutions to things cease to work? Because it’s in finding the edge and understanding the point of failure that we can begin to imagine and architect new solutions waiting to be created.