Achieving NASA's Goals with Breakthrough Technologies
FUTURE AEROSPACE NEEDS AND OPPORTUNITIES AND NASA'S ENABLING TECHNOLOGY GOALS
Readers of this report will note that Chapters 3, 4, and 5, which are focused on air vehicle technology, air transportation system technology, and space transportation technology, respectively, identify technologies within the framework of the 10 NASA goals, rather than the needs and opportunities identified in Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Aeronautics: Scenario-Based Strategic Planning for NASA's Aeronautics Enterprise (NRC, 1997). However, a close examination of NASA's enabling technology goals and the technology needs and opportunities identified during the scenario-based strategic planning workshop reveals that both are focused on the same priorities for the future of air and space transportation: reducing costs, improving performance, enhancing safety, mitigating the constraints of existing infrastructure, and addressing environmental concerns. The relationships between the NASA goals and the broad categories of need and opportunity identified in the previous NRC study are highlighted below.
Enhanced Air Vehicle Safety and Survivability
The NRC steering committee for the scenario-based strategic planning workshop, hereinafter referred to as the phase 1 steering committee, determined that air vehicles of the future must contribute to a significant reduction in aircraft accidents and be able to survive natural and man-made threats. NASA's Goal 3: Reduce the aircraft accident rate by a factor of five within 10 years and by a factor of 10 within 20 years, is directly related to this future need.
Three of the four scenarios analyzed by the phase 1 steering committee revealed a distinct need for more environmentally compatible air vehicles. Goal 1: Reduce emissions of future aircraft by a factor of three within 10 years and by a factor of five within 20 years, and Goal 2: Reduce the perceived noise levels of future aircraft by a factor of two from today's subsonic aircraft within 10 years and by a factor of four within 20 years, have further defined this important near-term and long-term future need.
General aviation was a major element in only two of the five scenarios assessed by the phase 1 steering committee. However, it is logical to assume that a third scenario, which was characterized by tremendous increases in air travel and economic activity, would include increased general aviation activity. NASA's goal for meeting the future demand for general aviation aircraft is to enable the industry to deliver 10,000 aircraft annually within 10 years and 20,000 aircraft annually within 20 years.
High-Speed Air Travel
The need for high-speed air travel was common to four of the five scenarios examined during the strategic planning workshop. However, the specific requirements for supersonic aircraft varied from one scenario to another. A large, extremely long-range aircraft was considered necessary in some scenarios, whereas a long-range smaller capacity jet used for business travel and specialized cargo delivery was important in other scenarios. Therefore, it is difficult to trace NASA's Goal 8: Reduce the travel time to the Far East and Europe by 50 percent within 20 years and do so at today's subsonic ticket prices directly to the needs and opportunities identified through the scenario-based strategic planning workshop. However, the environmental compatibility of supersonic aircraft was considered important in three of the four scenarios. Furthermore, the one scenario that ruled out the need for supersonic air travel did so because of grave concerns about its potential environmental impact. In addition, the phase 1 steering committee raised concerns about noise and the effects of sonic boom. Therefore, NASA's two goals focused on emissions and noise (Goals 1 and 2) are especially relevant to the future development of a high-speed civil transport.
Air Traffic Management and Related Air Transportation System Technology
Just as the future demands for lower costs, improved performance, and enhanced environmental compatibility will require that future air vehicles be improved, the air transportation system they operate within will also have to be improved. Each future scenario had unique implications for the future global air transportation system. In some scenarios, a sophisticated infrastructure was likely to be developed worldwide. In others, most places maintained almost no infrastructure while other places were left with the same basic infrastructure they have today. The volume of air traffic also varied significantly depending on the scenario. Despite these differences, however, it was clear that a safer, more efficient, more flexible, and more sophisticated air traffic management system would be required in the future. The phase 1 steering committee determined that the future air traffic management system should be satellite-based, should operate more autonomously than the system does today, and should be tailored to regional infrastructures and air travel demands.
Three of the enabling technology goals that NASA has defined to guide their R&D into the twenty-first century have a direct relationship to the need for improving the air traffic management system. These are: Goal 3: Reduce the aircraft accident rate by a factor of five within 10 years and by a factor of 10 within 20 years; Goal 4: While maintaining safety, triple the aviation system throughput, in all weather conditions, within 10 years; and Goal 5: Reduce the cost of air travel by 25 percent within 10 years, and by 50 percent within 20 years.
Enhanced Computer-Based Design and Manufacturing
Several of the scenarios assessed by the phase 1 steering committee suggested a future that would include greatly improved modeling and simulation capabilities that could be applied to the entire design and manufacturing process for aerospace systems, from conception to production to operation. "Virtual reality" and related improvements in computers and information systems were considered key enabling technologies. NASA's Goal 6: Provide next-generation design tools and experimental aircraft to increase design confidence and cut the development cycle time for aircraft in half is related to this future need, although experimental aircraft were not discussed by the phase 1 steering committee.
Space Transportation Technology
In each scenario, future access to space required low-cost, launch-on-demand vehicles that could carry small satellites (generally less than 500 kilograms) into Earth orbit for a variety of applications. Low cost was the overriding requirement for commercial applications, whereas assured, rapid, and frequent launch-on-demand capabilities were the overriding requirements for military applications.1
NASA's two goals for space transportation technology are directly related to the phase 1 steering committee's findings: Goal 9: Reduce the payload cost to low-Earth orbit by an order of magnitude, from $10,000 to $1,000 per pound, within 10 years, and Goal 10: Reduce the payload cost to low-Earth orbit by an additional order of magnitude, from $1,000's to $100's per pound, by 2020.
DEFINING "BREAKTHROUGH" TECHNOLOGY
After determining that breakthrough technology to meet NASA's goals would fit within the framework of the needs and opportunities identified by the phase 1 steering committee, the
committee also addressed the issue of defining ''breakthrough technology." History has shown that breakthroughs, as expressed by order of magnitude improvements in cost, efficiency, or performance, are often apparent only in hindsight and cannot be easily predicted. The committee, therefore, has adopted a broad definition of "breakthrough technology" that includes the following characteristics:
discrete technologies that might result in revolutionary improvements in capability
broad technology areas that might realize dramatic improvements in capability through the evolutionary or revolutionary development of a set of contributing technologies
The committee also acknowledges that breakthrough capabilities for complex systems, such as air vehicles, launch vehicles, and related infrastructures, are often the result of the novel integration of existing or "off-the-shelf" technologies, rather than as a result of revolutionary new changes or sudden advances in knowledge or technique.
ACHIEVING THE 10 AND 20 YEAR GOALS
Meeting the 10 Year Milestones
The NASA Office of Aeronautics and Space Transportation Technology also asked the committee to examine whether the 10 goals are likely to be achievable, either through evolutionary steps in technology or through the identification and application of breakthrough ideas, concepts, and technologies. The consensus of the committee is that major technological challenges will have to be overcome to meet the goals. Many members of the aerospace community who interacted with the committee were of the same opinion. Concerns about meeting the 10 year milestones were especially strong.
Human ingenuity and the ability to overcome even the most challenging goals cannot be overestimated. The success of the Apollo program in placing a man on the moon less than 10 years after President Kennedy's call to action is a powerful example. The very purpose of setting goals is to motivate people to strive for accomplishments that may seem impossible at first glance. Many NASA senior managers and researchers consider the goals exemplary in this regard.
However, beyond the 10 year timelines for many of the goals and their apparent ability to motivate, there are few similarities between the Apollo program's single goal and the 10 goals for aeronautics and space transportation technology. For example, consider the responsibility for operational implementation. Placing humans on the moon was the sole responsibility of the U.S. government, specifically, NASA. Therefore, technology developed for the Saturn V rocket by government contractors did not have to overcome barriers imposed by the competitive nature of the commercial marketplace, such as manufacturability, maintainability, and affordability, to name a few. In contrast, the concepts, processes, and technologies that are developed with an eye towards meeting NASA's
aeronautics and space transportation goals must be incorporated by manufacturers into commercially viable air and space vehicles and related systems before the goals can be achieved. This point was emphasized in a message from the NASA administrator included in the brochure, "Aeronautics & Space Transportation Technology: Three Pillars for Success" (NASA, 1997):
Throughout the pillars we present "technology goals" which are framed in terms of a final outcome, the anticipated benefit of NASA-developed technology, once it has been incorporated by industry.
An examination of the average time it takes to incorporate new technology into commercial products in the air transportation industry reveals that research and preliminary technology development under way today will probably not be adopted for at least 10 years. Manufacturers and operators of commercial transport aircraft have strong economic incentives to maintain the technological status quo or to adopt only incremental changes (GRA, 1992). The large base of existing aircraft and installed aircraft subsystems, coupled with existing infrastructure, also promotes the use of existing technology. New technologies that are not imposed by regulation must compete on a cost basis with existing components, which are usually relatively low cost and efficient.2
A similar economic argument can be made for the commercial space launch marketplace, where the basic design of expendable rockets has not changed dramatically since World War II. Therefore, any breakthrough technology that is important to the achievement of NASA's 10 year goals will have to evolve from existing, market-proven technologies.
The committee believes that NASA can take several steps to try to accelerate the adoption of previously unapplied technology into operational aerospace systems: (1) reduce the risk of technology adoption through increased validation and verification; (2) facilitate technology transfer and reduce commercial barriers to technology adoption by increasing industry participation in the early stages of technology development; and (3) investigate methods of increasing the pace of the innovation process itself.
Reducing the Risk of Technology Adoption
NASA has adopted a metric known as the technology readiness level (TRL) to measure progress towards the maturation of a given technology. The nine TRLs and their definitions are shown in Box 2-1. NASA's involvement in the development of aerospace technology usually ends at TRL 6: System/subsystem model or prototype demonstrated/validated in a relevant environment. Thus, NASA has not validated or verified a given technology in a realistic operating environment before industry is expected to integrate the technology into a new vehicle or associated system. The economic risk of adopting new technology for
Non-economic barriers to the adoption of new technology in the air transportation system are discussed in Chapter 4.
airlines and aircraft manufacturers could be reduced and implementation accelerated if NASA played a stronger role in technology demonstration and validation. Industry would have more incentives to adopt new technologies that contribute to the accomplishment of the 10 goals if NASA carries their development activities through at least TRL 7: System prototype demonstrated in flight environment.3
BOX 2-1 NASA's Technology Readiness Levels
Accelerating the Adoption of Commercially Viable Technology
Most manufacturers attempt to shorten the design-to-market timeline for new products by automating much of the design, development, and production process. NASA may be able to assist the aerospace industry by applying advances in information technology to unique aerospace problems. (Research and technology issues related to enhancing the capabilities of modeling and simulation are discussed in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4; and automated manufacturing is discussed in Chapter 3.)
The time-to-market for commercial products that incorporate technology originally developed in government laboratories can also be shortened by addressing issues such as reliability, manufacturability, maintainability, safety, affordability, and certification, as early as possible in the development cycle. This means that early industry involvement in R&D will be essential. Therefore, NASA should explore organizational models that maximize collaboration with industry throughout the innovation process.4 In fostering increased
collaboration with industry, NASA should ensure that the joint R&D activities maintain a focus on the 10 year goals, rather than shorter term objectives that often dominate industry's own technology development programs.
Finding. Unless NASA can reduce the time required to introduce new aerospace technology into the commercial marketplace, the 10 year milestones can only be achieved with evolutionary technologies.
Recommendation. NASA should attempt to reduce the time required to introduce new aerospace technology into the commercial marketplace by supporting technology development to a higher level of readiness, by investigating information technology-based methods to speed the pace of innovation, and by maximizing government/industry collaboration in the development of commercially viable technology focused on the 10 goals.
Meeting the 20 Year Milestones
Although a recommendation that emphasizes technology adoption, technology transfer, rapid innovation, and government/industry collaboration might be misinterpreted as a criticism of long-term, fundamental research, the committee does not intend to convey this message. Many of the technologies identified in the remaining chapters of this report are truly high-risk endeavors that will take much longer than 10 years to develop but could eventually meet NASA's goals. Long-term, high-risk technologies should be pursued through research that is focused specifically on the achievement of the 20-year milestones
The committee also recognizes that many appropriate technologies to achieve these long-term milestones have not been identified because ideal solutions to the challenging problems they represent are currently unknown. The committee believes that the general knowledge pool of the aerospace community should continue to be increased through fundamental research in order to discover these unidentified technology breakthroughs. Therefore, NASA should ensure that appropriate levels of sustained funding and effort continue to be applied to relatively unfocused, long-term, fundamental research in the aerospace sciences.
To accomplish these objectives, each NASA center with an aeronautics and space transportation R&D mission should exercise the responsibility and authority to fund researchers with promising ideas that could lead directly to the accomplishment of one or more goals or could eventually lead to revolutionary new aerospace technologies.
Finding. The pursuit of long-term, high-risk technology development is essential to meeting the 20 year milestones and will require continued NASA support of fundamental research in the aerospace sciences.
Recommendation. NASA should ensure that appropriate levels of sustained funding and effort continue to be applied to R&D focused specifically on the 10 goals, and to more general long-term, fundamental research in the aerospace sciences. To accomplish this, each NASA research center with an aeronautics and space transportation technology mission should exercise the responsibility and authority to fund researchers with promising ideas that could lead directly to the accomplishment of one or more goals or could eventually lead to revolutionary new aerospace technologies.
GRA. 1992. Economic Analysis of Aeronautical Research and Technology: An Update. Jenkintown, Pa.: GRA, Inc.
NASA. 1996. (Re)inventing Government-Industry R&D Collaboration. NASA Technical Memorandum 110271, Bruce J. Holmes. Hampton, Va.: NASA Langley Research Center.
NASA. 1997. Aeronautics and Space Transportation Technology: Three Pillars for Success. Office of Aeronautics and Space Transportation Technology, Alliance Development Office. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NRC. 1997. Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Aeronautics: Scenario-Based Strategic Planning for NASA's Aeronautics Enterprise . Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, Steering Committee for a Workshop to Develop Long-Term Global Aeronautics Scenarios. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.