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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

NASA Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project Manager Keith Wichman discusses mapping problems and solutions to transform aviation.

NASA’S Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) Project, part of the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, invests in identifying the right problems related to aviation that can make a transformational impact on society. CAS focuses on seemingly improbable ideas that might help solve problems that plague aviation.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • How convergent solutions benefit aviation
  • Why CAS expends energy on chaotic, problem spaces
  • How CAS identifies the right problems to address


Related Resources

Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project

CAS Contacts

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

Spread Your Wings on National Aviation Day

APPEL Courses:

Foundations of Aerospace at NASA (APPEL-vFOU)

Decision Analysis (APPEL-vDA)

Requirements Development and Management (APPEL-vREQ)


Keith Wichman Credit: NASA

Keith Wichman
Credit: NASA

Keith Wichman serves in NASA’s Aeronautic Research Mission Directorate as the Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project Manager. Wichman began his career with 12 years of flight research in Flight Controls and Handing Qualities at NASA’s Armstrong Research Center and returned to NASA in 2021 after 24 years in industry. He led technology development for Avionics and Air Traffic Management for General Electric Aviation. During this time, Wichman was seconded to Airbus for two years in Toulouse, France, as a delegate for European Commission Air-Traffic Management consortium projects. He previously worked at Draper Laboratory on Reusable Launch Vehicle reentry guidance, control and simulation. Wichman is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and was a certified flight instructor for 10 years. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Michigan, respectively.


Keith Wichman: Selecting what are those transformative wicked problems that only NASA is likely to be going after and can solve. That’s kind of a holy grail for us.

How do we go about shining a light in there and begin to build a map of what is of value in terms of potential problems and solutions that we can pursue for aviation?

Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

National Aviation Day is just around the corner. In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the first presidential proclamation designating August 19 – Orville Wright’s birthday – as a day when citizens are encouraged to participate in activities that promote interest in aviation.

Our podcast episodes in August will focus on aviation and take a closer look at NASA aeronautics research and the future of aviation. Our guest today is the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Keith Wichman.

Keith, thanks for talking with us.

Wichman: My pleasure, Deana. Glad to be here.

Host: Let’s start with the big picture and we’ll resist the urge to call it the 30,000-foot view. How does NASA support aviation?

Wichman: Well from a 30,000-foot view. I couldn’t resist, sorry. So, we are part of the aeronautics side of NASA and it’s the big A. The first A in our name, NASA, is focused on aeronautics and aviation. So, we at NASA are very much about being on the leading edge, I’d even say the bleeding edge of innovation and pressing technologies forward as it relates to aviation and aeronautics, and really how that benefits society and industry and in the US. So it’s things that are going to be good that lead us to desirable futures where aviation and aeronautics plays a role. And also looking at those futures and how they affect aviation itself.

Host: What’s your role?

Wichman: So, my role, I am the project manager of a project called Convergent Aeronautics Solutions and we are underneath the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA. So I lead the project.

Host: Could you give us a quick overview of the Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project?

Wichman: You bet. So, CAS, for short. It’s really a portfolio project of a variety of sub-projects. And these sub-projects are really geared to be experiments where we explore and try to beat down the barriers to get to a desirable solution vector. We do this in ways that are very different from other NASA projects. That is NASA, our brand of course is exploration, but we’re also extremely good as an agency at execution. Not just exploration, but executing development projects, technology projects, and that sort of thing.

CAS is really all about exploration. So we don’t develop technology exactly. We don’t do technology demonstrations, although we do a little bit of that just by nature of the experiments that we run. What we are geared towards is going after the really big and hairy problem spaces where things that can really transform aviation may live. So identifying them, mapping out those chaotic spaces, identifying some focus areas, and then trying to beat down the largest barriers in those areas relative to not only technical feasibility, but also societal desirability and in a commercial or regulatory viability as well.

So not only can we do these things, is it possible, but also should we? Is there value there? Would society find value in this and is there potential to get to a business case for industry? So that’s what we’re all about and once we’ve beaten down some of those barriers and learn what we can from those experiments as quickly as we can, then the goal is to transition those things to maybe the kinds of NASA projects, development projects you might know a little bit better.

Host: Such as?

Wichman: Oh, an example would be either NASA projects focused on vertical lifts or focused on airspace operations and safety, or focused on electrified aviation, all-electric aircraft, or for advanced airborne mobility. These are all customers of ours, if you will. We’re trying to press into things that might be 20, 30, 40 years down the road that have a lot of risk associated with them. And that these more near-term projects just can’t afford to absorb that kind of risk. They need inputs and starting points that are a little more predictable so that they can pull their systems together. We’re going ahead of them maybe in a way that they would be embracing what we’re producing in a few years from now as they see it coming their way.

Host: And so how is it that CAS fits into this? What does CAS do?

Wichman: So, our goal is to focus on, again, that exploration. So how do we explore? Well, there’s a wide variety of mechanisms, but a lot of what we do, we use as a theme, a quote from Albert Einstein, where he was reported to say to answer when asked, ‘What if you had an hour to solve a problem and your life depended on it, what would you do?’ And he claimed that he would spend the first 55 minutes of that hour focusing, just thinking about the problem, and only the last five minutes turning his mind to a solution to save his life. So that’s inspiring. That’s really how CAS rolls. That is we delay the gratification to jump to solutions. And that’s kind of hard for us engineers and researchers. Give us a problem, we’re going to find a solution. But in this case, we want to hold off on that. Suspend sort of technical disbelief of whether such and such is possible and really chew on the problem space initially for a good bit of time.

We call it mapping. And mapping is really focused on variety of mechanisms of listening and studying societal trends, looking at emerging capabilities, looking at needs and also futurism. Trying to imagine desirable futures and project into futures based on those societal trends. And then from those futures, apply an aviation lens to determine the problem areas like Einstein that we should be gnawing on, that we should be chewing on in great detail. And we move to a phase called synthesis where we put more meat on those bones and hopefully arrive at solution vectors, solution pathways, and what we call opportunities. And those opportunities then become the basis of an execution activity at the end, one of the experiments as we call it where we focus on attacking those barriers that I referred to.

Host: What are the desired attributes of concepts that fit into the CAS framework?

Wichman: Well, the word convergence is in our name, right?

Host: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wichman: And so, let’s talk a little bit about that. So what is convergence? What do we mean by convergence at least? And in what we mean is a confluence of a number of things, certainly a confluence of aviation technology domains. So there’s propulsion domains. There’s machine learning and algorithm domains. There’s materials and structures domains and large-scale operational systems domains. So it certainly looking at them in aggregate, but it’s also things beyond aviation. What is the industry doing? What is society interested in? It’s a convergence of those things.

So, you can think of a convergence of ideas. That’s what I’ve been talking about just now, but it’s also a convergence of people and the kinds of people. So we really crave and desire a diversity of thought, a diversity of backgrounds and approach. Because we fundamentally believe that one narrow domain area is not going to come up with these things that are really interconnected and transformational when it comes to aviation.

And really what we do inside of CAS is attempt to create a fertile ground where these magical big things can emerge. We can’t predict them. The best we can do is sort of cultivate a fertile area with interconnected people and ideas and brains really and hope to see these broad transformational ideas emerge. And that’s what we’re about, providing that facility. The CAS team exactly, we’re not the ones doing the work. It really is spread throughout NASA. We like to say CAS is powered by the centers. So the aero centers lend us their people for a spell and they go through our facilitated environment within CAS and get connected with other people. And that’s how the magic works.

Host: So, Keith, could you tell us more about how you get at these ideas and how you access people that can contribute to the goals that you have within the project?

Wichman: Sure. That’s a really great question. I love to talk about this part, too. So let’s talk about that very first, very early stage that I mentioned in our life cycle called mapping. So, I like to look at mapping as kind of a dark chaotic space. And that’s where the gold is. That’s where the good stuff is, but how do we go about shining a light in there and begin to build a map of what is of value in terms of potential problems and solutions that we can pursue for aviation? So that’s the heart of mapping. So how do we go about doing that? Well, we apply a variety of techniques.

One, we do a lot of digital listening so there’s techniques and mechanisms to allow us to listen to, in effect, chatter and get an idea of what folks are talking about. Again, not just aviation, just folks in general, but also technical people. What is being said in the digital world and the frequency of that, and where does it seem to be pointing? What are people talking about the most? And this is part of the futurism bit. That is, let’s attempt to project possible futures and then also select which ones of those are desirable.

It also involves actual listening. So that means interviewing people, asking appropriately vague questions to try to get at these things from experts. We do that within NASA within our aeronautics leadership, but we also do it with a lot of other people as well, globally people in other industries. Again, to get at what we refer to as societal trends and also the emerging capabilities. Who’s doing what and how might that be connected with other things?

And then we have a set of mechanisms that we’re exploring. We’re always working to improve this, but how do you put pieces together into more meaningful larger pieces or chunks? Where does this seem to be going? And that drives us to focus areas that we can then put even more energy on and well, focus on to gather more information, more data before we move into synthesis. So mapping is a lot more than just a few engineers Googling things. It’s a pretty organized and structural approach, methodical approach. But we do need folks as I mentioned. We’re powered by the centers’ folks from all four of the aero centers joining us on purpose spending time with this mapping exercise. Does that help, Deana?

Host: That does, yes. And then you offer some competitions and challenges along the way, right, that help to get people involved?

Wichman: Yeah, yeah, we sure did and continue to do this. So these are some of the tools in our toolbox, if you will. And one of them is crowdsourcing. So we’re using open innovation, but we’re doing it in a pretty peculiar way. Often what happens with a crowdsourcing challenge is a problem will be posted and then folks submit solutions to that problem, and they’re graded and awarded perhaps. What we did was we actually crowdsourced the problems themselves. So a little bit strange. It was strange for us and even the folks that we use to help administer the challenge itself had never done this as well, but it was terrific. And in fact, we just announced the winners of that challenge.

So basically, we asked people, we called it Future-Scaping Our Skies and the challenge that was out there was to think ahead, imagine futures and then connect into that how aviation may be affected by that, or how aviation may be required to enable that desirable future. And that was pretty much it. And it wasn’t intended necessarily for the typical aerospace engineer or the typical NASA guy. It was really geared towards everybody out in the world. It doesn’t matter their background. They can be a gamer, they can be a psychologist, they can be someone that’s into botany. It didn’t really matter. It’s think about the world in the future. And everyone has a vision of what they might like to see happen, especially as it relates even to flight. And that can be flight that includes carrying people, or that can be unmanned flight that helps, again, create the future they’re dreaming about. So, the response was really tremendous. Again, we’ve announced some results there. The winner was very much focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence and how that will be leveraged in aviation in the future.

In addition to that challenge, I’d like to point out another thing. NASA does a tremendous amount of outreach at the school level, elementary school and high school. And often that involves us going in and kind of selling engineering and aerospace to the next generation, explaining what NASA does and working to inspire them. And that’s awesome. But we’re beginning to leverage those opportunities as well to start by asking them to tell us while they’re still young enough to not be polluted by adulthood, narrowed in their mind and in their thinking, dream what does it look like?

And again, remember I said we want to sort of suspend disbelief for a little bit of whether some of these things are actually possible. That’s what we’re going to go find out. But before you constrain yourself too much, let’s dream and that’s the goal. So I hope you see that we’re using a variety of mechanisms again to get at the problem space and the ideas associated with those problem spaces.

Host: Oh yes. Such novel approaches to the way that you’re doing this. When you’re looking to invest in aviation concepts that can make a transformational impact on society, how hard is it to identify the right problems to address?

Wichman: Oh boy. This is probably our biggest challenge because the question becomes how much do you trust yourself to be able to predict the future? How much do you trust yourself to be right or to be the smart one, or the wise one? And if you don’t exactly trust yourself, do you trust your project? In NASA aeronautics we have a tremendous set of leaders across the centers and at Headquarters with a vision for the future. And I would say a humble, yet confident vision of where we should be going. And that’s terrific. What we’re trying to do is maybe feed them with ideas for where they lead us next and what the future is going to be.

So, in doing so, however, you don’t necessarily want them to be the judges. Same with maybe a venture capital approach. What CAS used to do was we had a Shark Tank-like selection process, almost a venture capitalist approach. But what we found was that ended up being a little too constraining and narrowing, and a little too near-term focus because the focus was, ‘Hey, how sound is this idea? Could we make something out of this that could be sold in fairly short order?’ Remember, that’s not what CAS is doing. We’re looking 20, 30, 40 years down the road. So who’s going to make those calls?

And we’re working to improve this. It’s not as if we’ve determined that we know the right way to do this, but it is important that we do it well and are able to improve. But we devised what we call a roundtable approach. So as these opportunities emerge from mapping in a very unconstrained fashion, but the opportunities become encapsulated in, well, the definition of an opportunity, an idea with a solution pathway.

And then we, the CAS project team, the folks from the centers that were engaged in the cultivation of that opportunity, and then some select external and internal folks, we come together. And it’s not in a decision-making panel where you get the thumbs up or the thumbs down like a Shark Tank, but it’s much more gathering around the family dinner table and laying the opportunity out on the table and decide, ‘OK, this is good. Yes, and how can we make this better?’ Or do we need to do a little more mapping and synthesis on this? Or is this concept even maybe ready to be transitioned already to external or to a mission project? Or is it indeed mature enough to take to the next step and move to the experimental phase or what we call execution?

So, we try to do that together, but in a roundtable or a family dinner table approach as we make those selections. And I would say we’re looking at the right metrics. How do we measure the focus areas coming out of mapping and the opportunities coming out of synthesis? Are they challenging enough? Are they transformative enough? Are they wicked enough? There’s a philosophy and an innovation where it’s called the wicked quadrants or the wicked domain, also called the neglected domain. And these are areas where both the problem space and the solution space are poorly characterized.

So that’s that dark chaotic area I was referring to. So we actually have taken to referring to our facility, our cultivated environment, as wicked works. So that’s the goal is, to answer your first question, is we aim to get better at this, but selecting what are those transformative wicked problems that only NASA is likely to be going after and can solve. That’s kind of a holy grail for us. But we’re making very good progress in that direction.

Host: Keith, are there experiences that you’ve had along the way in NASA and industry projects that guide your decision-making process that might be helpful to managers of other NASA projects to hear about?

Wichman: Yeah. I would say that, again, looking at these opportunities as experiments is quite novel, but as we engage people in wicked works, subject-matter experts and researchers from the aero centers get loaned to us for a while, and they participate in these activities of mapping and synthesis or maybe in a full-on execution activity. We’re changing the way individuals do innovation. We’re changing the way, certainly the way CAS thinks about innovation and the program — TACP — addresses innovation. But our goal is to be contagious, to be infectious of the rest of NASA at all levels. Early career folks have a really important role to play here. They’re not ruined yet either, if you will. And deep domain long-term subject matter experts also have a really important role to play here.

But as we do this, we’re changing our workforce to be more adept at reaching forward to not too quickly constrain what they’re doing by what’s clearly possible. And to imagine some things that are maybe not so possible, it seems, at the beginning and then work together.

I know other NASA projects recognize this. And our goal is to ensure that also that individual researchers, the workforce finds value in that as well that it’s a special thing to participate in a CAS activity. No matter where you’re doing it, you’re going to be changed forever in a good way. And you’re going to go back to other projects and back to your branches and infect them as well and be an innovation leader.

Host: What’s your vision of the future of aviation?

Wichman: Well, I think we’ve just begun. We think of aviation as being a part of our lives for sure today sitting here in 2021. We need aviation to deliver products to us from all over the world and move our products to all over the world, to deliver us to where we want to go, our friends and family and we take it in large part for granted. However, I believe what we’ve done thus far is just the beginning. We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible. So, I see ubiquitous aviation and not just, again, the carrying of people, but also just the applications of unmanned vehicles and manned vehicles such that things and people are flying all the time.

I think some of our limitation today is based on we want to be safe obviously. Even if it’s an unmanned vehicle flying over populated areas it still has to be pretty darn safe. And as a result, we’ve not entrusted ourselves probably wisely to date in too much automation. It’s very human-centered still and therefore limited in what we can do. So I do see a huge increase in automation leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning for sure.

I see aviation leading the way and becoming much more environmentally friendly. So, a huge step within NASA and even within CAS looking ahead is sustainable aviation. How can we make it clean and green? And again, just the variety and the ability to introduce in very large number to blow the doors off of new entrance of vehicle types with different vehicle performances, but still keep the interaction with other vehicles that we know and love and are used to flying as safe as it is today. So that’s where both the challenges are and where the opportunities are for aviation going forward, but NASA is going to continue to play a really very important role in paving the way to that desirable aviation future for sure.

Host: Many thanks to Keith for joining us on the podcast.

If you’re interested in getting involved with CAS or have questions, Keith encourages you to reach out to him or anyone on the CAS team. There’s a CAS Contacts link in the Episode 66 Related Resources at along with Keith’s bio and a transcript of today’s show.

We want to take a moment to thank you for the great ideas you’ve been sharing with us for guests and topics on the podcast. Quite a few of the fun topics we’ve discussed in recent episodes have been suggested by listeners, and a few more of your suggestions are in queue for upcoming conversations.

Anytime there’s a topic you’d like for us to feature in a future episode, you can contact us via the APPEL Knowledge Services website or via Twitter at NASA APPEL and use the hashtag Small Steps, Giant Leaps.

As always, thanks for listening.