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NASA OIG: The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's Management Strategy for Conducting Aeronautics Research

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2014

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Full report

We found that over the past few years, ARMD's leadership has refined the research strategy announced in 2006 to include more flight testing and technology advancement. We believe that with these refinements, ARMD is supporting advancement of the nation's civil aeronautics research and technology objectives consistent with the National Plan.

Strategic Research Planning. ARMD's Associate Administrator; the Director of Strategy, Architecture, and Analysis; and several program directors told us that ARMD considers the National Plan the defining policy document for NASA's aeronautics research. We found that ARMD follows the goals and objectives established by the National Plan, and that the National Science and Technology Council periodically assesses progress of the executive departments and agencies towards achieving the Plan goals.

Similarly, our review of project plans for the Fundamental Aeronautics Program found that NASA's ongoing research in this area aligned with requirements established in the National Plan. For example, ARMD's Fixed Wing Project includes a milestone to "reduce fuselage structural weight by 15 percent... while not affecting certification and passenger comfort." This objective aligns with National Plan goals related to mobility, energy and environmental, and national security.

Furthermore, responses to our survey of external customers confirmed that ARMD solicits input from industry, academia, and other Federal agencies regarding research needs and found that it uses this information to develop its research plans.

Monitoring and Evaluation of Research Progress. We reviewed ARMD's strategy for measuring progress toward achieving its research and technology goals. We also interviewed senior Directorate management officials and project managers in the Fundamental Aeronautics Program and reviewed planning documents.

We found that in early 2013, ARMD refined its performance evaluation process to emphasize "management by technical challenge." Technical challenges are specific research areas in which Agency managers expect NASA efforts to have an impact. According to senior Directorate officials, program and project managers monitor their programs' progress toward meeting these challenges. Specifically, programs pursue long-term technical challenges (those anticipated to take more than 10 years to accomplish); set 5-year milestones; and annually evaluate progress toward those milestones, making adjustments based on actual progress.

For example, the Fundamental Aeronautics Program is pursuing the long-term technical challenges of reducing airframe weight by 15 percent without impacting safety or passenger comfort and reducing nitrogen oxide emissions to 80 percent below the standards adopted in 2008. Managers in each of the four projects in the Program annually evaluate progress toward meeting the 5-year milestones related to these long-term technical challenges and adjust plans and milestones based on these annual assessments.

Technology Transfer and Collaboration. ARMD transfers research products to external customers and collaborates with external parties to better define advanced airframe and propulsion concepts. We reviewed these activities to examine NRC concerns regarding the usefulness of ARMD research products to external customers.

To assess the technology transfer and collaboration process, we surveyed 17 external customers of the Fundamental Aeronautics Program and received 8 responses. All eight of the respondents reported that the technical transfer process is working to further their aeronautics research and technology development. In addition, all eight indicated that NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program is providing useful research products and expect that the Program will meet their needs in the future.

Additionally, the Associate Administrator for ARMD said Directorate staff work closely with industry, academia, and other Federal agencies to develop tools and technologies to improve the efficiency, safety, and adaptability of air transportation. For example, NASA collaborated with the Federal Aviation Administration to complete a field evaluation of the Precision Departure Release Capability, which uses takeoff time estimates from a surface automation system to improve departure scheduling in a constrained airspace. Similarly, NASA and the Department of Defense collaborated on multiple research and development efforts, including vertical lift aircraft and integrated hypersonic research. Several years ago, NASA established an Executive Research Council with the U.S. Air Force, which meets at least twice a year to ensure close coordination of research. Furthermore, in 2012 ARMD established the Integrated Systems Research Program to advance promising research from projects using a system-level approach that examines how individual research activities contribute and interact in a system-wide context. One of the Integrated Systems Research Program's main goals is to accelerate the transition of aeronautics R&D results to industry and government.

Fundamental versus Advanced Research. We reviewed ARMD's Fundamental Aeronautics Program to address NRC concerns that ARMD appeared to be avoiding investments in flight research in favor of a focus on fundamental research.

We found that the Program balances fundamental research and advanced research, including flight-testing. We surveyed Program customers and found that six of eight survey respondents reported they had received technologies from ARMD that had matured beyond fundamental research levels. ARMD's approach in this area is a notable shift from its previous strategy that focused on fundamental research and reduced the amount of advanced research conducted. As part of our review, we also identified areas where ARMD was collaborating with partners and conducting flight-testing. For example, in 2011 NASA, Bell Helicopter, and the U.S. Army performed flight-testing to measure the noise levels of a Bell Helicopter 430 aircraft.

Procurement.In light of our previous audit observation that a predetermined funding level increased the risk that projects would use an NRA when another procurement instrument would be more appropriate, we examined the procurement instruments used by ARMD to acquire research and technology to support its programs.

As originally conceived in 2006, ARMD's strategy predicted that NRA funding would grow to $100 million annually by FY 2013. However, ARMD has lowered its annual NRA funding goals and, according to officials, final FY 2013 NRA obligations are expected to be about half of the 2006 estimate. Because of ARMD's lower overall NRA funding levels, we believe that program and project managers are less likely to award an NRA when another procurement instrument, such as a Request for Proposal, would be a better match for the research NASA seeks to acquire.

ARMD has also given project managers flexibility regarding their annual NRA funding goals. For example, according to the May 2013 "Fundamental Aeronautics Program Plan," if a project's acquisition planning process concludes that a Request for Proposal may be more appropriate than an NRA, and if the Proposal can be shown to meet the intent of a widely-competed external research investment, then the Proposal may count toward the project's NRA funding goal. This flexibility helps lessen the risk that NRAs may be used inappropriately.

In our judgment, these adjustments help lessen the risk of projects using an NRA when another procurement instrument would be more appropriate.

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