Finding: If NASA determines that progress in hypersonics research is a priority, then the agency could reform the Hypersonics project with the specific goal of development and demonstration of the technologies for a hypersonic vehicle within 25 years to enable point-to-point flights from any point on Earth to any other point in a few hours. NASA could coordinate development plans with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other DOD organizations in order to make the program affordable and enhance its development.
Establishing such a goal would help to focus current NASA hypersonics research and enable the agency to develop a series of steps to achieve it, most likely consisting of multiple small vehicles leading to a “flagship” class integrated vehicle.
ORGANIZATION, COLLABORATION, AND COMMUNICATION
Other governments, other U.S. government agencies, and numerous commercial companies are all engaged in various forms of aeronautics research. NASA has the ability to collaborate with various partners and currently does so in certain areas such as hypersonics research. In the current budget environment it has become increasingly important that the agency is expertly managed and that the best effort is made to produce useful and effective flight research.
Recommendation: NASA aeronautics should aggressively pursue collaboration with the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. aerospace industry, and international aeronautics research agencies. NASA should adopt management practices to facilitate effective collaboration and treat external organizations as customers and partners. NASA leadership should develop a formal process for regularly soliciting input from the U.S. aerospace industry and universities as well as key government agencies to ensure the relevance of its flight research programs to national needs.
In the relatively recent past, when it was conducting more flight research than it currently conducts, NASA successfully sponsored important aeronautical innovation with relatively modest flight research budgets. NASA aeronautics research is entirely capable of initiating a program aimed at developing cost-effective flight research vehicles to demonstrate innovative aerospace technology in flight. NASA has played a preeminent role in inspiring the next generation through its leadership role in space exploration. Many aeronautical engineers working in industry and government today were inspired by NASA’s flagship flight research programs such as the X-15 hypersonic research program. Unfortunately, there is no such flagship mission today to inspire the next generation, and current small-scale research projects are not sufficient to attract much attention.
Despite an outstanding history of NASA-led aeronautics flight research successfully transitioning to the U.S. aerospace industry. Failure to effectively communicate these accomplishments appears to have led directly to reduced programmatic and political advocacy, even within the aerospace community, and ultimately results in reduced budget authority. Improved communication of NASA’s key innovations from flight research programs to its key stakeholders will help NASA justify future investment in new flight research programs.
A major problem facing NASA aeronautics is one of perception—the view that because aviation is a mature field, government-funded research has little to contribute, and that NASA has done little in this field in decades. This is a false conclusion, and, as this report demonstrates (see Chapter 3), NASA has made major contributions to aeronautics in recent decades. Industry and DOD believe that NASA can continue to play an important role. When answering the question, “Why should NASA be involved in aeronautics research, particularly conducting flight research?” the committee concluded that industry in these economic times cannot and will not take on the full cost risk of moving technologies from the laboratory to operations. NASA’s charter tasks the agency to help with this process. NASA’s role is to develop requirements for the next research vehicles and then work with industry to build and test those aircraft.
One aspect of communication to stakeholders is the effective dissemination of technical data to relevant