"Joining a Winning Tradition"
Dr. George C. Nield, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC
April 16, 2011

Real World Design Challenge National Event

Thank you, Ralph [Coppola]. And good evening everyone. I’m pleased to be here tonight and to have this opportunity to join in honoring those who have participated in the Real World Design Challenge.

For those of use who are aviation and space enthusiasts, this is a perfect time to be holding an event like this. After all, this week we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the very first human spaceflight. It was on April 12, 1961, that the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into the final frontier, making him the first person to orbit the Earth.

April 12 also marked the 30th anniversary of the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle. As you may have heard, NASA is currently in the process of retiring those magnificent flying machines. Right now, there are just two more missions on the schedule, one later on this month, and one in June. After that final mission is complete, NASA is planning to rely on private industry to launch cargo, and eventually crewmembers, to and from the International Space Station, thereby enabling NASA to focus its attention on exploring the solar system.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie “Back to the Future,” but there is some dialog in the film that seems to really fit with this evening’s events. Doc Brown, who is a brilliant, but somewhat absent-minded scientist, tells Marty, the young hero in the story, that “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Today, we honor teams of young people who have put their minds to designing a more environmentally-friendly wing. This was a challenge in every sense of the word, and accepting that challenge has put all of you in some rather distinguished company. Challenges have always played an important role in science and discovery – and as a means of expanding man’s knowledge.

Each of you who participated in the Real World Design Challenge is now a part of that tradition.

One of the earliest scientific challenges was put forth in the Longitude Act, which was passed by the British parliament back in 1714. The goal was to find a practical way to determine a ship’s longitude. Hundreds of sailors were losing their lives every year because large sailing ships were losing their way, or were veering off course and running aground. They offered a prize of 20,000 pounds, worth about $15 million today, to motivate researchers to come up with practical solutions to the problem.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was in pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig prize when he became the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

More recently, we saw Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites win the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for demonstrating a privately-built, rocket-powered vehicle, capable of carrying three people, that could fly to the edge of space twice within two weeks. The winning craft, known as SpaceshipOne, now hangs here in the Smithsonian, next to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier.

Challenges are an important part of this country’s past and of our future. Now, each of you has become part of this winning tradition, and I congratulate you all.

The FAA is proud to have been a part of the Real World Design Challenge from the very beginning. This competition enables us to help develop the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and aerospace professionals that will be critical to the future of aviation and space transportation. The competition also helps us underscore the importance of an educational curriculum strong in science, technology, engineering, and math.

For all of the students here tonight – I salute you. You have each risen to the challenge. Using your curiosity and your determination, in cooperation with your team members and your teachers, and with support from both industry and government, you are helping to solve real world problems and advancing our knowledge in the process.