Paris Air Show

NASA saving its pennies for

 - December 13, 2006, 7:12 AM

NASA once sprinkled its research monies throughout “a field of 1,000 flowers,” some of which would blossom. In coming budget years, the U.S. agency’s Aeronautical Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) has far fewer seeds to sow. This October, the ARMD will release the recommendations of its strategic roadmap committee (SRC) for research plantings out to year 2025, shifting from broad cultivation to a narrow circle of cash crops.

With the NASA aeronautics budget facing drought, the only research projects to fly are ones that fly. In its SRC report, the ARMD will plow only “high-risk, high-payoff and barrier-breaking” technologies, to culminate in specific, flyable demonstration projects. Against such cuts, the SRC will respond with Goals, Technology Change, and a new Approach to spending, or in NASA’s own acronym, “GoTChA!”

The SRC met in March and April 2005, chaired by Terry Hertz, deputy associate administrator for technology for the NASA ARMD, and cochaired by Jim Jamieson, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Boeing. The chairs led scientists, academics–and accountants–through tortuous discussion.

By fiscal year 2007 merit-based competition at the ARMD may eliminate 1,100 of 3,000 civil servants, plus employee-equivalent contractors, largely in ARMD vehicle systems. A focus on breakthrough demonstrations, and more reliance on other agencies, academia and the private sector, both reflect and enable a major flux in aeronautics research.

“We’re working in every manner we can for the euphemistic ‘soft landing,’ for these employees,” said Hertz.

Most of the vehicle systems program will be unsupported, placing 20 major ground test research facilities in peril, ranging from the drop-testing of general aviation aircraft to sucking the air from aeronautics wind tunnels. NASA’s ARMD is assessing various options for these operations including voluntary buyouts, job fairs to rebalance its workforce, and new users and funders for its facilities. But at the same time, it is bracing for involuntary measures, such as complete shut-down. Such cuts prompt worries that the aeronautics strategic roadmap, one of 13 NASA committees to report before fall 2005, will be more of a justification for this downsizing than a mission statement.

“The strategic roadmap is key to conveying the importance of air transportation to the health of the United States,” said Hertz, “demonstrating that NASA provides the foundation to identify and deliver technical solutions in aeronautics.”

Broadly, the ARMD is supposed to “provide advanced aeronautical technologies to meet the challenges of next-generation systems in aviation, for civilian and scientific purposes, in our atmosphere and in atmospheres of other worlds,” to encompass as many as 38 capabilities spanning the Mars airplane to study of the Earth system from space. Most are earthbound, though, in support of tripling the capacity of the national airspace system, without eroding safety, security and environment. Cost estimates through 2025 total $35 billion.

Increasing Mobility

The longer term goal of the ARMD centers on increasing mobility within the national airspace system, namely 35 percent higher throughput in the terminal area, with a 20-percent increase systemwide and fewer delays. On its map to greater mobility, NASA plans to support an aircraft’s self-protection capability against abnormal operation, as well as reducing breakdowns of the human-machine interface, and communicating and mitigating natural and atmospheric hazards.

Yet hidden within any NASA objective for new mobility is an unspoken one: to maintain current levels, and to do so affordably. Committee members debated whether public monies should foster “affordability,” which might benefit specific private-sector companies or invite new vigilance on subsidies, versus “mobility,” which was seen as generically in the national interest.

Hertz explained that a government role might be justified for a grander, intermodal study, such as on-demand air transportation to connect any two points at any schedule, and for using aviation to support bandwidth and communication needs. But, in his view, it is less appropriate to support the goals of a small number of firms, such as the reduction of sonic booms to support civilian supersonic business jet service.

The SRC considered novel ideas for mobility, such as a form of human cargo pod with its own wheels and engine, to pack passengers as though in a FedEx container and fly as a module. Other blue-sky concepts draw on the precision and smaller footprint of a next generation of general aviation aircraft; for example, civil adaptation of military-style parallel operation and formation flight, or the division of an existing runway into segments to rely on extremely short takeoff and landing capability.

But with fewer dollars on the table, most discussion by the ARMD was incidental to aeronautics. Instead it focused on intricate new guidelines for accountability, and the mechanics and politics of NASA decision-making, which affect all of the agency’s work. This, despite the fact that the spectacular failures that led to a change in culture fell within its space program.

‘Badgeless’ Collaboration

Nonetheless, the ARMD has launched a Next-Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS) Institute to harvest input to aeronautics research outside of the formal public scrutiny known as the Federal Advisory Committee Act. It hopes the NGATS Institute will achieve “badge-less” collaboration to better shape and manage its lean resources. However, it remains concerned about its prospective choices for corporate support.

Critics may differ with the ARMD’s priorities, and perhaps have even greater doubts about the elaborate metrics used to measure published aims that are expected to define a national airspace system transformed to three times its current baseline by 2025. NASA modelers recently moved the former typical NAS baseline of May 17, 2002, to a random day in 2004, though any static baseline remains suspect.

Models encompass variables within airspace growth, such as an evolution from the current commercial fleet to a future mix of unmanned air vehicles, short takeoff and landing airplanes and a new form of supersonic transport. They also consider the current hub-and-spoke model versus substantial new usage of small airports. Also considered are assumptions of good weather and normal operations systemwide, versus an entire region of airspace shut down by hostile action.

Such models do not capture emerging threats, such as a malicious computer attacks on satellites or air traffic control systems, bioterror and natural pandemics, or airline bankruptcies and consolidations from a prolonged fuel crisis. Furthermore, models assume that the NAS will remain jointly managed by civilians and the U.S. Department of Defense, with universal access to satellite and navigation tools, a structure already in flux.

Finally, any research roadmap to 2025 will be NASA-centric and aviation specific. No agency, particularly NASA, has considered whether three times as many passengers, or even two times, can reach an airport via civil infrastructure, given ever-new focus on security, health screening and immigration control at gateways.