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NASA Aeronautics Research—An Assessment
As noted in the statement of task for this study, NASA uses the term fundamental research to include continued long-term, scientific study in areas such as physics, chemistry, materials, experimental techniques, and computational techniques that leads to a furthering of the understanding of the underlying principles that form the foundation of the core aeronautics disciplines, as well as that research that integrates the knowledge gained in these core areas to significantly enhance NASA’s capabilities, tools, and technologies at the disciplinary (e.g., aerodynamics, combustion, trajectory prediction uncertainty) and multidisciplinary (e.g., airframe design, engine design, airspace modeling and simulation) levels.
To effectively support U.S. efforts to maintain a position of aeronautics leadership and competitiveness, NASA research at all levels must be carefully structured in terms of work content, performance expectations, and technology transfer to external and internal users of NASA aeronautics research, which include U.S. industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Defense (DoD), academia, and the NASA space program. Foundational research that addresses underlying principles will tend to be earlier in the technology maturity continuum, and it will be more scientific in nature, which makes it more difficult to schedule meaningful milestones and to point this research in a direction that is sure to enhance U.S. competitiveness and meet user needs. On the other hand, more advanced research with a clear path to application will likely have a heightened sense of urgency and purpose. The ideal plan would have a combination of both foundational and applied research in appropriate areas, with management systems appropriate for each. For example, integration of multidisciplinary research related to the health of vehicle systems and vehicles as a whole (see R&T challenge D5) would be more effective if managed through an overarching and formal organizational entity that relies on system engineering disciplines.
Maintaining a position of leadership requires staying ahead of the pack, by being the first to bridge each new gap into the future. This is a challenging task; were it not so, others would have overtaken the leader to set a faster pace. The statement of task for this study directs the committee to consider whether there are gaps, and “if gaps are found, what steps should be taken by the federal government to eliminate them.” Looking to the future of NASA’s aeronautics research, the following gaps will require special attention to ensure that the nation’s civil aeronautics research program, executed through NASA, achieves its goals.
GAP BETWEEN RESEARCH RESULTS AND APPLICATION
The Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics evaluates R&T challenges based on their potential to achieve six strategic objectives:
Increase the capacity of the air transportation system.
Improve the safety and reliability of the air transportation system.
Increase the efficiency and performance of aircraft, facilities, and so on to maximize utilization of the air transportation system.
Reduce energy consumption and the negative environmental impact of air transportation.
Take advantage of synergies when specific aeronautical research helps to achieve the first four objectives while also helping to achieve the goals of the DoD and the Department of Homeland Security.
Support the space program.
Maintaining core competencies, especially in areas that resonate with NASA’s unique capabilities, is an appropriate part of NASA’s strategy for maintaining a U.S. position of leadership in aeronau-