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Advancing Aeronautical Safety: A Review of NASA’s Aviation Safety-Related Research Programs
examined and assessed all these sources, as well as the process employed by NASA to prioritize safety needs for the programming and resourcing of its safety research programs.
NASA’S AVIATION SAFETY RESEARCH ROLE AND MISSION
NASA has an important role in aeronautics research that dates back to its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).4 In particular, early NACA research and test facilities were instrumental in advancing the safety of civil aviation. Through research conducted over more than four decades—from pioneering tests during the 1920s of wing and propeller icing in refrigerated wind tunnels to the building of design data needed to achieve the stability and control characteristics essential for the introduction of passenger jets in the 1950s—NACA was a leading contributor to aviation safety. NASA’s subsequent programs of research and testing in a variety of areas, such as airborne wind shear detection, microwave landing systems, and head-up displays, have helped advance the safety performance of each generation of aircraft and its operating environment. At the same time, NASA has also played a critical role in addressing pressing safety issues that arise from incidents, from its work in the 1960s on means to prevent bird strikes to its collaborations with the FAA in the 1980s to develop a better understanding of the causes of and corrective actions for wind shear.
Continued growth in aviation has generated significant additional challenges to aviation, from community noise and emissions to airline delays and security threats. These challenges have tapped significant R&D resources from NASA, the FAA, other federal government agencies, and the aviation industry. As the demand on research has risen, so too has the demand for results from safety research that can be applied to immediate safety problems and concerns. The 1996 crashes of TWA Flight 800 and Valujet Flight 592 prompted the White House to convene the Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, chaired by Vice President Al Gore (the Gore Commission). This commission was charged with recommending ways to improve aviation safety and security through changes in procedures, regulation, and research and technology. The 1997 report recommended that a principal focus of government and industry safety efforts should be on reducing the rate of commercial airline accidents by a factor of five within a decade. To do so, the report stressed the importance of partnerships, and specifically urged NASA to expand its collaboration with the FAA and the aviation industry to improve airline safety.
In keeping with the Gore Commission’s advice, the FAA and NASA signed an agreement in 1999 formalizing the agencies’ mutual commitment to developing technologies with the greatest potential for reducing the commercial aviation accident rate.5 The two agencies agreed to engage in joint research in a number of areas, such as aging aircraft, wake vortex research, wind shear prediction, and aircraft icing detection.6 In addition, NASA emphasized its role in bringing about early improvements in commercial aviation safety. It set a target of reducing the airline fatal accident rate by 50 percent (when compared with baseline levels from 1990 to 1996),7 as well as a 10-year goal for an 80 percent reduction.
Five years into its realigned safety research program, however, NASA found itself struggling to measure progress in achieving the airline safety targets. The performance metrics of airline accident and fatality rates proved to be problematic for gauging the impact of research over a relatively short time horizon. Hence, by 2005 NASA was intent on reorienting its safety research program to deemphasize the connection to current accident rates. The policy guidance in the 2006 National Policy coincided with NASA’s decision to change course. The National Policy espoused a more forward-looking aeronautics research program, one that would make better use of each federal agency’s core competencies and unique research capabilities for the aviation community generally. It continued to
See Roger E. Bilstein, Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990, NASA History Series, NASA SP-4406, NASA, Washington, D.C., 1989.
Memorandum of Understanding between Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) concerning Aviation Safety Research, FNA 08, July 2, 1999.