The first issue of the magazine that would become Aviation Week & Space Technology includes a fascinating description of the Wright Model L Light Reconnaissance “Aeroplane.” “While designed primarily for military scouting . . . its small dimensions and light weight make it a runabout particularly suitable for the sportsman owner,” wrote Aviation and Aeronautical Engineering in Vol. 1, No. 1, dated Aug. 1, 1916.

Sportsman suitability notwithstanding, even with World War I in full cry, the Model L (see photo) was a business failure. It earned only a footnote in aviation history as the last aircraft manufactured with input by one of the Wright brothers—Orville, who was by then a consultant to the company that bore his name. Not long after that article appeared, the Wright Co. merged with Glenn Martin’s outfit to become the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corp., starting a trend that continues to this day.


Intelligence. Analysis. Insight.

This story is a selection from the March 14, 2016 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. New content posted daily online.

Subscribe now or browse the current issue


Known as Curtiss-Wright Corp. since 1929, the company started by the first men to fly a heavier-than-air vehicle has evolved through growth and acquisition into a multibillion-dollar operation with more than 8,400 employees. Among the many markets it serves is spaceflight, where it is keeping alive the first-in-flight heritage of the founding brothers.

In 2011, Curtiss-Wright bought an Irish company called Acra Control Ltd., which was pushing the envelope to lower the cost of spacecraft components by fabricating data handlers, controls and other electronics boxes with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The idea was to spare spacecraft primes the expense of designing COTS-based components by doing it for them, testing them to make sure they could handle the rigors of spaceflight, and selling them for less than larger companies can manufacture them on their own.

The savings turn out to be substantial, according to Daniel Gleeson, the Dublin-based space business development manager for Curtiss-Wright. Customers have reported savings of as much as 75% on the parts manufactured in Ireland, he says, allowing them to buy their way into an impressive set of spaceflight projects since 2000. That includes: the European Space Agency’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) that flew a suborbital reentry Feb. 11, 2015, to test reusable-launcher technology; the United Launch Alliance Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V; the SpaceX Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles and the Dragon capsule; the Ansari X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo; and as test hardware in the payload bays of two space shuttle flights.

On SpaceX missions, all of the video sent back from space is run through COTS hardware originally developed by Acra Control. That included the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Transportation System effort—which by chance also uses the “COTS” acronym—on Dec. 8, 2010. The company’s KAM-500 unit flew on the Falcon 9 first and second stages and the Dragon cargo vehicle to transfer video and high-speed sensor data into the mission’s telemetry stream.

It turns out that COTS-based hardware first developed for atmospheric flight-test applications will work without modification in space environments that have relatively low radiation loads. Beginning with the IXV, Curtiss-Wright also devised a “Smart Backplane” approach to harden its circuitry against radiation damage by cycling it off and on, automatically, when it senses a potentially damaging radiation event. Building the technology into its circuit boards allows them to withstand higher radiation levels without requiring special rad-hard parts, Gleeson says.

“It’s what happens when everything’s connected together that matters,” he says. “The concept was protecting the board.”

While it was tested for IXV, the Smart Backplane technology didn’t fly because it wasn’t needed on the short suborbital flight. Boeing, which must keep its planned CST-100 Starliner docked to the International Space Station for six months, has picked the Curtiss-Wright technology for the commercial crew capsule and its expendable service module.

“It is effectively a safety net, and it is radiation hard,” Gleeson says. “It’s the only place in our system that’s hard, so we now have boards that are COTS boards, but they’re protected from destructive events by a hard backplane.
 . . . On CST-100, we were selected based on that proposition that we could do this and based on proving it through qualification for the data acquisition system. So we provide the remote analog interface equipment unit for the CST on the service module, two on the service module and four equipments on the crew module.”

Overall, Curtiss-Wright has flown its COTS hardware on space launch vehicles, reentry vehicles and spaceplanes, including the atmospheric test vehicle of the X-37 Boeing built for the U.S. Air Force. Gleeson says development in the works should enable COTS-based hardware to fly into deep space for planetary landings and orbital reconnaissance eventually. That is the difference a century of incremental innovation can make, from cruising over the trenches of France at 80 mph to—perhaps—the moons of Jupiter and beyond.