Aeronautics research is important to the United States and its national security, both militarily and economically. Flight research is a critical part of this aeronautics research, not only to validate predictive tools, but also for the knowledge gained in the process of integrating systems and the possibility of discovery. ARMD is charged with advancing the aeronautical sciences in support of the military and industry. Despite these goals, NASA does not currently include economic development of the aerospace industry as one of its primary objectives.
NASA’s aeronautical research priorities are derived from multiple documents, reports, and policy statements, and constrained by budget and congressional authorizations. The numbers of “priorities” are numerous, including 51 research and technology challenges from the 2006 NRC decadal survey of civil aeronautics11 alone. The reductions in the ARMD budget over the past decade and the increase in the number of these priorities have led to a reduction in the amount of budget available for each individual technology to the point that very few projects can advance enough to begin even the most modest flight research.
In many cases flight research is the only way to advance certain technologies. This is because of the lack of ground facilities capable of replicating the environment or the physical laws that govern the phenomenon under study. ARMD is conducting aeronautics flight research throughout its organization; however, in most cases the technical difficulty of this flight research is of very low X-factor. NASA no longer conducts the same kind of technologically challenging flight research that the agency performed only a decade ago and no longer produces the kinds of aeronautical advances that have made the United States a world leader in aviation.
NASA’s guiding principles charge the agency with aligning its goals with the nation’s critical needs. DOD for instance, to meet its military operational requirements, must perform portions of its missions in the supersonic flight regime and, to a limited extent, in the hypersonic regime. Commercial crew development vehicles currently being built to reach the International Space Station and NASA’s exploration beyond Earth require exiting and reentering Earth and planetary atmospheres. Such vehicles will need to fly across all speed regimes (subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic). Therefore, in order for NASA to address these critical national needs, it must maintain strong leadership capabilities in all speed regimes of flight.
ARMD is organized into a series of programs and projects within the programs that are meant to provide structure to address specific priorities. ARMD also provides branch organizations to support engineering disciples and other support functions. The shear number of these programs, projects, sub-projects, branches, and centers leads to organizational inefficiencies. With reduced budgets, a constant number of civil service employees and contract employees, fixed facilities and other costs, an increased proportion of funds is not available for spending on flight research efforts. The result is an aeronautics research effort that is diluted and diminished and unable to advance any research agendas.
Finding: The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is charged with performing aeronautics research, including flight research in support of the nation’s needs. The United States currently needs aeronautics research for the national defense both militarily and economically. The 2006 NRC report Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future identified 51 high-priority civil challenges that NASA is pursuing. This number is too high to achieve meaningful progress given existing resources. With the large number of “high-priority” projects, ARMD appears to be avoiding flight research because of the perceived cost of flight test and what has become a risk-averse culture.
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 flight research vehicles to demonstrate innovative aerospace technology in flight. A new innovative air vehicle should be launched each year. To make meaningful progress in these programs the scope
11 NRC, Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics, 2006.