NASA Should Phase Out Lower-Priority Aeronautics Activities, Focus on Higher Risk, Higher Payoff Projects

Press Release From: National Research Council
Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2012

WASHINGTON -- At a time when NASA's aeronautics funding is at a historic low, the agency needs to restart its highly successful flight research program, rather than devote most of its efforts to small-scale research, says a new report from the National Research Council. To accomplish this, the agency should phase out lower-priority aeronautics activities and select two to five programs with the greatest potential. Because flight research is a vital tool for aeronautics and has been neglected in recent years, NASA should ensure that each of these projects has a defined path to in-flight testing and that funding will be available to complete the in-flight research portion of the project in a timely manner. The report also urges improved communication and collaboration with key stakeholders in government and industry.

"NASA has the ability to make substantial contributions to aeronautics in the United States for civil, commercial and military projects," explained Wesley Harris, Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "NASA has made major contributions to aeronautics in recent years, such as helping create the vibrant American unmanned aerial vehicle industry in the 1990s. Unfortunately, there has been no flagship mission to inspire the next generation, and current small-scale research projects that don't take flight do not attract much attention."

NASA's aeronautics program lacks the resources to accomplish the 51 high-priority goals it was urged to pursue in the most recent Research Council decadal survey, the report notes. However, given current budget pressures, NASA appears to be avoiding investments in flight research due to the costs and risks. The loss of flight research capabilities -- which are a vital tool for developing technology, proving and calibrating other research, and convincing industry, regulators, and the public that new inventions in aeronautics are effective and safe -- has hindered progress throughout NASA's aeronautics program. Restoring flight research and accelerating progress will require strategic direction from NASA headquarters, careful leadership, and tough decisions. It will also require NASA to cull its lower-priority aeronautics activities in order to free up funds.

In addition to the overwhelming amount of small-scale aeronautics projects at the agency, the report found that NASA has initiated many projects with no clear road map for how they would eventually be tested in the environment in which they would operate. Therefore, once the agency determines its top two to five projects, each should be given a defined path to flight testing that includes details of the vehicle to be used for flight research and ensures that funding will be available for this research stage.

The report examines case studies in three areas -- environmentally responsible aviation such as highly fuel-efficient aircraft, supersonics, and hypersonics -- as examples of programs where NASA already possesses the core research to make significant progress, provided the agency can allocate resources for the flight research phase.

To further enhance the agency's aeronautics progress in the current budget environment, the report emphasizes the need for collaboration with other governments, other U.S. agencies, and commercial companies engaged in aeronautics research. NASA should aggressively pursue collaboration and develop a formal process for regularly soliciting input from outside groups to assure its flight research programs are relevant to national needs.

The study was sponsored by NASA. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit A committee roster follows.

Lorin Hanco
ck, Media Relations Officer
Shaquanna Shields, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail

Pre-publication copies of Recapturing NASA's Aeronautics Flight Research Capabilities are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board

Committee to Assess NASA's Aeronautics Flight Research Capabilities

Wesley L. Harris1 (chair)
Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and
Associate Provost
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Mark Anderson
Platform Performance Technology
Boeing Research and Technology
Bellevue, Wash.

Neil A. Armstrong1
Chairman of the Board
EDO Corp. (retired)
Lebanon, Ohio

Edward J. Burnett
Senior Fellow
Modeling, Simulation, and Controls
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.
Palmdale, Calif.

Inderjit Chopra
Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center, and
Alfred Gessow Professor
Department of Aerospace Engineering
University of Maryland
College Park

Richard S. Christiansen
Vice President
Sierra Lobo Inc.
Milan, Ohio
Robert A. Cowart
Supersonic Technology Development
Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.
Savannah, Ga.

John B. Hayhurst
Senior Vice President
Boeing Co. (retired)
Kirkland, Wash.

Timothy Lieuwen
School of Aerospace Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology

Ronald F. Probstein1,2
Ford Professor of Engineering Emeritus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eli Reshotko1
Kent H. Smith Professor Emeritus of Engineering
Case Western Reserve University

Rogers E. Smith
Senior Test Pilot
NASA (retired), and
Independent Consultant
Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

John Tylko
Vice President of Business Development
Aurora Flight Sciences Corp.
Lincoln, Mass.

Randy Voland
Co-founder and Vice President
ACENT Laboratories LLC
Hampton, Va.

Deborah DeMania Whitis
Section Manager for Materials Applications Engineering
General Electric Aircraft Engines
Westchester, Ohio


Dwayne Day
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences

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