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NASA enters race to develop electric aircraft

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act (NASA) was signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958.  Since that historical event, NASA has strived for innovation in the fields of aeronautics and space research.  Few people know that for the past decade, NASA has been researching the realm of possibilities for creating commercial aircraft powered by electricity. 

The result of this research is the X-57 Maxwell, a small electric plane; the ongoing work on the project is taking place at the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, California.

Jim Heidmann, manager at a NASA’s Glenn Research Center, a test facility for electric flight in Ohio, is confident in the future of such technology.  “Industry used to scoff at the idea of electric planes but that’s no longer the case; they are very interested in this,” Heidmann said.

Electric aircraft are not expected to take the place of jetliners like the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737.  Heidmann said that a battery-powered aircraft of this size is “just not feasible, it would be too heavy to take off, let alone fly.  Weight is quite a bit more important for planes than cars.” 

The X-57 Maxwell is modest in its dimensions.  NASA’s new electric plane will have two seats and a range of around 100 miles (160km).  Its projected cruising speed is 172 mph, and this is just the starting point.  NASA’s goal is to phase in electric flights for Americans within the next 15 years.

It might seem improbable that the X-57 Maxwell, considering its size and distance limitations, could be a worthwhile endeavor, and the scalability or advancement of this innovative technology end up in moth balls, considering that a two-seater aircraft is more of a staple of general aviation rather than commercial airline providers.  However, electric flight is becoming a reality for small airlines in the foreseeable future. 

Finnair has signed a letter of interest for twenty 19-seat ‘ES-19’ electric aircraft.  Nineteen seat capacity is a popular design for island-hopping services, similar to the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter.  There is likely a market for aircraft in terms of this capacity, and the limited range of electric aircraft may not be a deterrent either.  Norwegian regional carrier Wideroe’s pre-COVID routes were less than 170 miles (275km) long, and the airline is expecting to introduce a Rolls-Royce-powered electric design in 2026.