for lower environmental impact, are so demanding that only full-scale testing of new systems and concepts will bridge the gap between laboratory research and impact on the U.S. economy, national security, and the environment. Although ground testing and simulations will continue to add value to the advancement of aeronautics, only flight testing will convince industry, regulators, and the public that new inventions in aeronautics are acceptable.


NASA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct a study “to assess and make recommendations about how best to integrate flight research into the current Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s (ARMD) fundamental research activities and integrated systems research activities.” The NRC’s Committee to Assess NASA’s Aeronautics Flight Research Capabilities concluded that the type and the sophistication of flight research currently being conducted by NASA today are relatively low and that the agency’s overall progress in aeronautics is severely constrained by its inability to actually advance its research projects to the flight research stage, a step that is vital to bridging the confidence gap. NASA has spent much effort protecting existing research projects conducted at low levels, but it has not been able to pursue most of these projects to the point that they actually produce anything useful. Without the ability to actually take flight, NASA’s aeronautics research cannot progress, cannot make new discoveries, and cannot contribute to U.S. aerospace preeminence.

The committee’s statement of task charged the committee with looking at the current baseline budget scenario, an augmented scenario, and an unconstrained budget scenario for ARMD. The committee considered the “unconstrained” scenario to be unrealistic given the current pressures facing the federal and NASA budgets. However, the committee notes that an “augmented budget” of a relatively modest amount—for example, shifting only 1 percent of the overall NASA budget to aeronautics—could have a significant effect on the aeronautics program’s ability to conduct flight testing of several current initiatives. The portion of the aeronautics budget by expense category related to government personnel and support contractors is 56 percent, and facility maintenance now represents 14 percent of the NASA aeronautics research budget.2 Only limited resources can be committed effectively to flight research programs for the modification or design and construction of research vehicles. As a result, NASA no longer initiates larger-scale, “flagship” vehicles for flight testing.


One of the major problems facing NASA’s aeronautics program is that it has been directed to pursue a large number of goals, but it clearly lacks the resources to accomplish more than a few of them. The NRC 2006 study Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future3 identified 51 high-priority civil challenges that NASA should pursue. NASA has made limited progress in achieving these goals, and the committee concluded that this number is too high for NASA to achieve meaningful progress, given existing resources. ARMD appears to be avoiding flight research because of the perceived cost of flight test and because of what has become a risk-averse culture.

So that better progress can be made in developing new technologies and transitioning them to commercial and military aeronautics use, the committee makes the following recommendation:

Recommendation: NASA should select and implement at any given time a small number (two to five) of focused, integrated, higher-risk, higher-payoff, and interdisciplinary programs. The committee concluded that these priority focused efforts will require flight testing to advance useful knowledge and should therefore include a path to flight. Therefore, NASA should also develop cost-effective


value or significance to that agency.” Executive Order 13419 states that: “Continued progress in aeronautics, the science of flight, is essential to America’s economic success and the protection of America’s security interests at home and around the globe.”

2 J. Shin, “NASA Aeronautic Research,” briefing to the National Research Council Committee to Assess NASA’s Aeronautics Flight Research Capabilities, April 18, 2011, Edwards, Calif., slide 7.

3 National Research Council, Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006.

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