Editor's note: Michael Belfiore is the author of "The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs" as well as a speaker and commentator on innovation.
Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, attempted the impossible. It launched an unmanned aircraft from a rocket at 20 times the speed of sound with the goal of controlling its flight through the atmosphere for about 20 minutes - long enough to glide from the California coast to the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific.
Such a feat had never before been attempted, and ground controllers lost contact with the craft, called the Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2, or HTV-2, nine minutes after it separated from its Minotaur rocket.
The HTV-2's hypersonic glide flight test was but one of many high-risk, potentially high-payoff projects funded by DARPA. DARPA is America's hidden innovation engine. Not so many know the name, but nearly everyone is familiar with the agency's work: GPS receivers that slip into our pockets, interactive computer displays and the Internet itself.