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DARPA History

History of DARPA and its accomplishments

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ARPA’s TIROS program placed the first dedicated weather satellite, TIROS 1, in orbit on April 1, 1960.

The X-31 experimental aircraft was designed and built by Rockwell and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB), as part of a joint U.S. and German Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability program to improve pilots’ abilities to control the aircraft’s pitch and yaw with more finesse than was possible in most conventional fighters. One outcome was the ability, with the help of design elements such as thrust vectoring, to execute controlled flight at extreme angles of attack at which conventional aircraft would stall or lose control.

DARPA joined the cause by sponsoring tests of the X-31. During a test on November 6, 1992, one of the two X-31s that were built in the program, achieved controlled flight at a 70° angle of attack. On April 29, 1993, the second X-31 successfully executed a swift, minimum-radius, 180° turn using a post-stall maneuver, a maneuver well beyond the ability of conventional aircraft. Of the two aircraft, one survived to the conclusion of the X-31 program in June 1995. That aircraft underwent further research at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. Its ultimate destination was Germany where it remains on display at the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim.


The December 1984 test flight of the X-29—the most aerodynamically unstable aircraft ever built—demonstrated forward-swept wing technology for supersonic fighter aircraft for the first time. Technology breakthroughs, among them a digital fly-by-wire flight-control system and carbon-fiber wing technology, made possible a lightweight design far more maneuverable than conventional aircraft. DARPA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force jointly developed two X-29 technology demonstration aircraft, which the Air Force acquired in March 1985 and used for 279 test flights by April 1990.

Although Air Force fighter designs ultimately embraced DARPA’s stealth revolution rather than the high maneuverability promised by forward-swept wings, other X-29 technologies found their way into future aircraft. Advanced composite materials are now used extensively in military and commercial aircraft. Aeroelastic tailoring to resist twisting under flight loads is now a standard tool for advanced designs with relevant outcomes including the long, thin wings of the Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance aircraft.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is the signature wound of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservative estimates put the number of U.S. warfighters who have experienced TBI at more than 200,000. Battlefield medical personnel today rely on visual signs and the personal accounts of patients to alert them to the possibility of TBI. The DARPA Blast Gauge provides a quantitative means for measuring blast related exposure, thus providing a mechanism for medical personnel to better identify those at risk for TBI. The gauge collects quantitative data to provide medics with a screening tool and data for uncovering the mechanisms of TBI.
Many things drive scientists and technologists from across multiple disciplines to join DARPA as program managers and technical office directors. The most common theme, however, is service to country. At DARPA, these visionaries are charged with creating and preventing technological surprise in support of U.S. national security. For Bradford Tousley, a former DARPA program manager who recently returned to DARPA to assume leadership of the Tactical Technology Office (TTO), service to country spans generations.