NASA 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, the agency recvommends. 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.
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.