NASA To Look To More Earthbound Endeavors

 - February 27, 2009, 10:02 AM

Two former officials of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration along with former President Clinton’s national science advisor have issued a report suggesting that the space agency should return to its roots by restoring the aeronautics portion of its mission.

In one of five recommendations to the Obama Administration, they urge NASA to implement a reinvigorated and effective aeronautical research program, with particular attention to low-carbon fuels and efficiency to help ensure the future well-being of the nation’s aviation industry.

“Aeronautical capabilities are important to the U.S. economy, but the aeronautics segment is becoming less competitive,” they warn. “The U.S. share of the world’s aerospace markets has declined significantly since the mid-1980s.”

The report, “Maximizing NASA’s Potential in Flight and on the Ground: Recommendations for the Next Administration,” was issued by Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. Coauthored by George Abbey, former Johnson Space Center director; former agency flight director John Muratore and Clinton national science advisor Neal Lane, it calls for–among other things–canceling a new Ares 1 rocket and scaling down the Orion crew exploration vehicle, a larger version of the 1960s Apollo capsule. Instead, the report recommends restructuring the human space initiative and keeping the space shuttle flying until 2015.

The authors said that NASA’s new Vision for Space Exploration basically focuses the agency on a single mission, moving NASA away from a balanced set of activities–to the detriment of science, engineering, research and technology, and aeronautics–that have contributed so much to the nation’s leadership in space and aeronautics.

In all, they proposed a five-point plan that takes the agency in a direction “that will significantly contribute to the future of the United States and the American people, indeed to all humankind, in two vital areas: energy and environment, especially climate change.”

As for aeronautics, the trio recalled that NASA’s aeronautics research and technology program had produced significant advancements in aeronautical design, such as the low-drag cowl for radial engines and the “Coke bottle” to reduce transonic drag rise.
“More recent aeronautics advancements such as multi-axis thrust-vectoring exhaust nozzles integrated with aircraft flight-control systems; fly-by-wire flight control technologies; high-strength, high-stiffness fiber composite structures; and tilt-wing rotorcraft technology have been achieved in partnership with NASA’s research and technology programs,” the report noted.

Because modern aircraft are complex “systems of systems,” advances in one discipline such as aerodynamics might require an advance in another discipline– such as structures–before they can be applied in a new aircraft design.

“A NASA fundamental aeronautical research and technology program, not tied to specific development projects, would be an essential element of the reinvigorated aeronautics initiative and would provide the foundation for such future advancements,” the trio wrote.

According to Abbey, Muratore and Lane, government aeronautical test facilities are another area of concern. Many facilities have been or are in the process of being closed down, and U.S. aircraft companies are being forced to go overseas to perform wind-tunnel testing of new U.S. designs.

“A reinvigorated and more effective aeronautical research program must include a review of the present status of the nation’s aeronautical test facilities and
the identification of the upgrades and new construction needed to ensure the support of the revitalized aeronautical research program,” they said.

In addition to calling for a more robust aeronautical research program, they proposed that NASA should dedicate itself in the short term to “proving its relevance in the post-Cold War world while restructuring its human spaceflight objectives.”

They urged NASA to restructure the human space initiative and keep the space shuttle flying until 2015; deliver short-term (within four years) payoffs in energy and the environment; deliver longer-term payoffs (within four to eight years) for energy and the environment; and ensure an ongoing and effective robotic space science program.

“Under the plan, NASA will continue to fly humans into space, complete the international space station, meet its commitments to our international partners and re-establish a balanced set of activities featuring science, engineering, aeronautics, research and technology,” the report said.