Since 1951, NASA (known in those pre-space days as NACA) and the United States Air Force have used the “X” designation for experimental aircraft that push technological boundaries. The best known of these vehicles, such as the X-1 and X-15, were used to study flight at extreme altitude and speed. Several fighter jets got their start as X-planes over the decades, and a number of hypersonic scramjet vehicles have flown under the banner. As such, the X-planes are often thought of as the epitome of speed and maneuverability.
So the X-57 Maxwell, NASA’s first piloted X-plane in two decades, might seem like something of a departure from the blistering performance of its predecessors. It’s not going to fly very fast, it won’t be making any high-G turns, and it certainly won’t be clawing its way through the upper atmosphere. The crew’s flight gear won’t even be anything more exotic than a polo and a pair of shorts. As far as cutting-edge experimental aircraft go, the X-57 is about as laid back as it gets.
But like previous X-planes, the Maxwell will one day be looked back on as a technological milestone of its own. Just as the X-1 helped usher in the era of supersonic flight, the X-57 has been developed so engineers can better understand the unique challenges of piloted electric aircraft. Before they can operate in the public airspace, the performance characteristics and limitations of electric planes must be explored in real-world scenarios. The experiments performed with the X-57 will help guide certification programs and government rule making that needs to be in place before such aircraft can operate on a large scale.