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Advancing Aeronautical Safety: A Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Research Programs Summary Advancing the state of aviation safety is a central mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).1 In keeping with direction from the National Aeronautics Research and Development Policy,2 issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the emphasis of NASA aeronautics research is on undertaking longer-term, “foundational research” aimed at developing a stronger aviation knowledge and technology base. NASA’s aeronautics research expertise and assets are also called upon to assist in finding solutions to more immediate and pressing needs of the aviation sector, particularly in the area of safety. Most responsibility for aeronautics research at NASA is housed in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD). ARMD administers several major research programs, including the Aviation Safety Program, the Fundamental Aeronautics Program, and the Airspace Systems Program. While safety research is the primary domain of the Aviation Safety Program, safety-related research is undertaken in all of the ARMD programs. Congress requested this review of NASA’s aviation safety-related research programs, seeking an assessment of whether the programs have well-defined, prioritized, and appropriate research objectives; whether resources have been allocated appropriately among these objectives; whether the programs are well coordinated with the safety research programs of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); and whether suitable mechanisms are in place for transitioning the research results into operational technologies and procedures and certification activities in a timely manner. To undertake such an assessment requires knowledge of why NASA elected to focus its safety research on specific objectives and on certain content to meet each objective. Accordingly, the Committee for the Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Programs sought from NASA an explanation of how it goes about identifying and prioritizing safety research needs. Not in a position to make its own thorough assessments of research needs and priorities, the committee refrained from providing advice to NASA on the specific research it should be doing. The study findings with respect to each of the main aspects of the review sought by Congress are summarized next. These findings indicate that NASA’s aeronautics research enterprise has made, and continues to make, valuable contributions to aviation system safety but it is falling short and needs improvement in some key respects. 1 NASA, 2006 NASA Strategic Plan, NP-2006-02-423-HQ, Washington, D.C., 2006, available at http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/142302main_2006_NASA_Strategic_Plan.pdf, p.13. 2 National Science and Technology Council, National Aeronautics Research and Development Policy, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, Washington, D.C., December 2006, available at http://www.aeronautics.nasa.gov/releases/national_aeronautics_rd_policy_dec_2006.pdf.
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Advancing Aeronautical Safety: A Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Research Programs KEY FINDINGS Do NASA’s Safety-Related Research Programs Have Well-Defined, Prioritized, and Appropriate Research Objectives? Findings: NASA needs a more objective process for prioritizing safety research. While the objectives of ARMD’s Aviation Safety Program are worthy guideposts for safety research, ARMD lacks a well-founded process for prioritizing the research needs associated with each objective, and thus for ensuring that its research is well aligned with meeting critical national aviation safety needs. Internal interests are overemphasized in the programming of safety research. ARMD gives undue weight to research that aligns well with its existing activities, personnel, and assets rather than the results of critical evaluations of current and emerging aviation safety needs. The Aviation Safety Program has developed research projects to address safety issues associated with new operations, operating in hazardous conditions, loss of control, and on-board system failures and faults. The research also seeks to enhance the durability of aircraft structures and systems and to improve capabilities to analyze complex systems for safety. In the committee’s view, these are worthy objectives to guide research aimed at improving both the current and the future state of aviation safety. What is not clear, however, is whether the research being undertaken in each of these areas represents the best use of ARMD’s capabilities and resources to make a meaningful contribution to the targeted safety objectives. The committee expected to find a research prioritization process that is deliberate and well informed, supported by empirical analyses, careful reviews of research being undertaken elsewhere, and advice from outside experts to enable ARMD to identify the key research needs associated with each objective and to determine where its programs can contribute the most to meeting them. The existing prioritization process, however, appears to be driven largely by ARMD’s interest in employing existing personnel and assets at the NASA research centers. Those safety objectives that map well with ongoing research activities and with these internal interests are generally given priority in the programming of research and allocation of resources. By not having such a defensible, analytically based process for prioritizing its safety research, ARMD could not justify, in a convincing manner, much of the content of its research programs. Thus, in not having access to such an independent assessment of safety research needs, the committee could not determine whether ARMD’s safety research programs are well prioritized to make use of available resources or identify whether changes in NASA personnel and facilities are required, and neither can ARMD. Have Resources Been Allocated Appropriately to Research Objectives? Finding: Too few resources are devoted to sustaining and acquiring critical safety research capabilities. Continued emphasis on preserving existing research expertise and assets risks degradation of ARMD’s core safety research strengths and the prolonged neglect of competencies required to address new and emerging safety issues. ARMD currently has nationally and internationally recognized research competencies in critical safety areas, such as icing research. While these existing nodes of expertise need to be recognized and their critical mass sustained, they risk being neglected as research funding is spread widely to preserve all of ARMD’s research capabilities, including those that are no longer unique to NASA or of high safety relevance. Yet, even as ARMD seeks to retain and strengthen its core safety research competencies, it must give sufficient attention to investing in the research expertise that will be needed to address new and emerging safety issues, including the capability to address safety issues extending beyond aircraft to the broader aviation environment. ARMD recognizes the importance of such forward-looking investments, as evidenced by its efforts to expand and strengthen its expertise in critical software verification and validation (V&V). To acquire the needed expertise going forward, ARMD will need to make many difficult decisions about the allocation of resources among its existing facilities and program areas, requiring that some capabilities be eliminated and others substantially scaled back. By not having in place an objective and well-informed means of
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Advancing Aeronautical Safety: A Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Research Programs assessing safety needs and priorities, building the case for such resource investments and realignments is made even more difficult. Finding: Too few resources and programs are devoted to stimulating innovation. ARMD lacks the structure to elicit, explore, and develop innovative ideas to advance aviation safety. In light of ARMD’s emphasis on advanced and long-range research, the committee is surprised to find few programmatic means and resources set aside for fostering exploratory and innovative thinking on ways to solve safety problems. Even though funding such research may involve greater uncertainty about expected payoffs, taking such calculated risks may be warranted in cases where research investments to solve safety problems have reached the point of diminishing returns and for which breakthrough insights and technologies are needed. ARMD does not have any formal mechanisms to support such exploratory research and innovation. Are the Programs Properly Coordinated with the Safety Research Programs of the FAA and Other Relevant Federal Agencies? Finding: Connections with the FAA, other federal agencies, and the aviation community are varied but not deep. NASA and the FAA coordinate in the planning and conduct of safety research, and many mechanisms exist for interacting and exchanging information with other federal agencies, academia, and industry. These connections could be deepened through more inclusive and sustained reviews of NASA safety research by such outside experts. NASA and the FAA coordinate in the planning and conduct of safety research, and many mechanisms exist for interacting and exchanging information with other federal agencies, academia, and industry. These include exemplary efforts to cooperate and collaborate in the planning and conduct of safety research, such as the work addressing high ice water content hazards in jet engines. Such varied means of coordination across federal agencies are commendable and critical, given that the interconnectedness and complexity of the aviation system demands the broadest possible cooperation and coordination of interests. One area where greater inclusion is desirable is in seeking external reviews of ARMD safety research activities. The Aviation Safety Program activities are currently reviewed on a periodic basis by experts from the FAA and other federal agencies. Such agency reviews and consultations are vital to ensuring that the research is compatible with the work going on elsewhere in the federal government and is relevant to the operational and regulatory needs of federal agencies. Limiting these external reviews to experts from federal agencies, however, may cause ARMD to miss out on opportunities to gain additional perspective from industry and academia and to inform outside perceptions of the program’s capabilities and priorities. There is a general recognition within the research community that external reviews foster higher-quality research. Yet, it is important that the reviews be conducted not only at the end stages of the research but also on a continuing basis, from the beginning of the work to its completion and transitioning. Finding: Internal coordination of and collaboration on safety research need improvement. Within ARMD, there is stove-piping of research that risks system-level safety solutions not being explored and safety hazards not being addressed that arise from interactions among aviation system elements. In the large, evolving, and complex aviation system, safety concerns can arise from interactions among system elements that may be considered safe on their own but not in combination, such as interactions among aircraft and airspace technologies and procedures. Under these circumstances, one would expect to find a significant amount of safety-related research being planned and undertaken in the other ARMD programs, often in collaboration with the Aviation Safety Program. With a few exceptions, however, ARMD’s safety research programs were presented as discrete activities of the Aviation Safety Program, the Fundamental Aeronautics Program, and the Airspace Systems Program. Given the complexity and breadth of the aviation safety challenge, it is troubling to find such “stove-piping” or compartmentalization within ARMD. Even within the Aviation Safety Program itself, however,
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Advancing Aeronautical Safety: A Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Research Programs the committee observes this phenomenon, such as the relatively few collaborative activities occurring across the related objective areas of New Operations and Loss of Control and across the Aircraft Aging and Durability and Integrated Vehicle Health Management projects. Do Suitable Mechanisms Exist for Transitioning the Research Results from the Programs into Operational Technologies and Procedures and Certification Activities in a Timely Manner? Finding: Demands for safety-assured technologies and procedures can conflict with NASA’s emphasis on long-range, foundational research. ARMD exploits many mechanisms to assist in furthering the technologies and procedures developed through its research; however, safety assurance and approval requirements can present vexing implementation challenges. In light of these challenges, some of ARMD’s safety-related research would appear to have very limited prospects for eventual implementation—a risk that deserves more explicit consideration when ARMD programs its research. Because much of ARMD’s safety work consists of fundamental and long-term research, a high degree of operational applicability cannot be a metric for judging whether the research should be undertaken, nor can there be a strong emphasis on definitive end products and transition planning. Yet, for some of the safety-relevant research being pursued by ARMD, the resulting technologies and process are intended to support the FAA operational needs and have early application, in which case transition planning is important. The committee observes, however, that in many such cases NASA and the FAA recognize these challenges and are actively seeking to overcome them, for instance, by coordinating special research transition teams intent on identifying and addressing safety implications much earlier in the research process. Even for research of a longer-term nature, NASA must have some understanding of eventual implementation challenges in order to judge the merits of the work. This is because achieving an accepted level of safety assurance required for certification of resulting technologies and processes may be more complicated and daunting than the development of the technologies and practices themselves. The committee believes the kind of external reviews espoused above are likely to bring such implementation challenges to the forefront, compelling early attention by those programming and engaging in the research. By applying foresight in mapping out the implementation challenges, researchers can better assess the long-term practicality of the research in relation to other research options addressing the same safety objective. Doing so will not only yield insight into these implementation challenges, but may also suggest areas where ARMD research can be helpful in overcoming them, such as in developing improved safety analysis and approval methods. RECOMMENDATIONS The following actions are recommended by the committee to address the shortcomings identified above. Recommendation 1: The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) should adopt a more fully informed, empirical, and documented process for identifying and prioritizing safety research needs for use in guiding its aeronautics research and development programming and investments in research expertise and capacity. A central element of this process should be the development of comprehensive aviation safety needs assessments. These assessments should be: Made objectively, independent of ARMD’s existing research expertise, assets, and resource requirements and constraints. Undertaken in close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration and other relevant federal agencies and in consultation with industry, academia, other safety-related organizations, and considering the relevant aviation safety data and literature. Cognizant of the safety needs being researched elsewhere in government, industry, and academia to know where critical gaps in research coverage may exist.
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Advancing Aeronautical Safety: A Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Research Programs Recommendation 2: The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate should establish programmatic means for encouraging more exploratory research on innovative ideas to improve aviation safety. The program should elicit and develop the promising ideas of researchers from industry, academia, other government agencies, and NASA. Recommendation 3: The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s safety-related research activities should be subject to regular reviews by outside experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and other government agencies, industry, independent research institutes, and universities. These reviews, which will help in ensuring continued safety relevance, quality, implementation challenges, and successful transitioning, should be undertaken during the formative stages of the research, interim phases, and as the work is being completed. The reviews should have a prominent role in informing research programming decisions. Recommendation 4: The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate should develop and implement processes that will lead to more coordination and collaboration in the planning and conduct of safety research both within the Aviation Safety Program and across all its aeronautics research programs.