In the classic aerospace film The Right Stuff, astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom highlighted the criticality of robust funding for new spacecraft when he told NASA engineers: "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."
Col. Scott McKeever, global mobility lead for the Air Force Warfighter Integration Capability office, put it another way: "Money makes things happen," he said during the Agility Prime program Launch Week event in April. "It's what is the fuel behind aviation."
The service's Agility Prime initiative aims to boost a new industry for electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which some officials and other observers refer to as flying cars. The military hopes to acquire the platforms for its missions and facilitate the civilian adoption of the technology to move people and goods around cities and other areas. The concept is also known as urban air mobility or advanced air mobility.
However, the Air Force isn't planning to bankroll the national effort to create a new mode of transportation. The commercial sector and civilian agencies will have to shoulder much of the burden, experts say.
The Air Force is only spending about $25 million on Agility Prime this fiscal year, according to Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper. And the department won't be spending significant amounts of money on research and development, he noted.
"We will certainly have this in our '22 budget," he told reporters. "We'll have to either work with Congress on '21 or work internal sources, but ... that money is going towards testing, certification and ultimately a bill of sale."
Some firms in the private sector, such as Uber, are gung-ho on the technology. But making the dream of cities full of flying cars a reality will require an entire ecosystem of innovators, suppliers and infrastructure.
"We in the commercial world are really moving quickly and that's especially true in the Silicon Valley," said Mark Moore, Uber's engineering director of aviation and leader of the Uber Elevate initiative. "But honestly, this is bigger than any one company. This is tens of billions of dollars of investment that's required."
The Air Force hopes that the Agility Prime program will encourage venture capitalists and other investors to pump money into the fledgling industry.
"Companies have shared with us privately that they have seen the amount of internal...