The US agency is building airships it believes will revolutionise the transport of cargo around the world, with its first prototype set to take off next year.
“One of NASA’s jobs is to solve the nation’s air transportation challenges with research, and airships haven’t seen much research in the past few decades,” said Dr Pete Worden, the director of NASA research arm Ames at an airship conference in Alaska last month.
NASA hopes airships will become the new freight transporters of the 21st century, replacing trucks and trains and allowing heavy cargo to be flown into areas where rough terrain or poor infrastructure rules out ground travel.
“Initially we are expecting to be able to lift tens of tonnes and we are building a demonstrator that we hope to fly at the end of next year,” said Dr Worden.
“In the long run, I think it could be used for many forms of cargo transport. One of the ideas that people have looked at is that these things can go up to hundreds of tonnes. We will have those by the end of the decade.”
The cost of air freight and concerns over greenhouse gas emissions is behind the resurgence in interest for building large airships.