Aeronautics Rebounds: Optimism Grows With New Funds, Initiative
It's been hard times for the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate for many budget cycles, but the work of NASA's research centers and a reformulation of the mission directorate's focus that began in 2006 is showing results.
ARMD Associate Administrator Jaiwon Shin, who spoke at a June 4 all-hands meeting, said there is reason for optimism with more funding for aeronautics included in the 2010 federal budget and the green light for the first new aeronautics initiative in a decade.
"I think that aeronautics has always been viewed as a very important part of the agency and as [Acting Center Director] David [McBride] said, Dryden has a rich history that goes back 63 years. Dryden has done a lot of different work, but aeronautics-related research has been important work for Dryden," Shin said.
In total, ARMD is looking at a fiscal year 2010 budget that is $203.5 million more than the $450 million in the 2009 baseline budget. The increase is the result of an additional $150 million allocated to NASA's ARMD from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed earlier this year, Shin said. In addition, President Barack Obama's 2010 NASA budget requests $53.3 million more than the agency requested.
"The $150 million is proof that people recognize that NASA aeronautics is worthy," Shin said. "I am excited for all of us."
Dryden also will see an increase from its actual ARMD budget of $44.1 million in fiscal year 2009, to $60.8 million in 2010.
Also adding to Shin's enthusiasm is the Integrated Systems Research Program, the first new aeronautics program in more than a decade. In 1999, a program led by Dryden called Revolutionary Concepts, or RevCon, was intended to fund flight research of advanced vehicle concepts and accelerate high-risk, breakthrough technologies in aeronautics.
The key project of the new ISRP is the Environmentally Responsible Aircraft project. An allocation of about $60 million for each of the next five years - about $300 million - including $62.5 million to ramp up in fiscal year 2010 is reason for enthusiasm, Shin said.
The ARMD has been validating individual technologies such as an embedded propulsion system for noise reduction, laminar flow control to reduce fuel consumption and other technologies for reducing emissions. The technology development effort as part of fundamental aeronautics research is intended to address research gaps for next-generation research and development projects, he said.
"We want to enable game-changing concepts and technology from advanced foundational research, ultimately, to understand the feasibility of advanced systems. The technologies have contributions from all of NASA's aeronautics centers and the research is reaching a point where they need to be combined and evaluated as a system to see how they fare, or we may be spinning our wheels," Shin said.
Partnerships with private industry, federal agencies and others could lead to a demonstration that will prove whether the technologies mitigate the environmental impacts they were designed to meet, he added. While there is no line item for a piloted 100-foot wingspan blended wing body configuration aircraft to validate the technologies, Shin said that could be a possibility in the future.
Fay Collier, principal investigator for the ARMD Subsonic Fixed Wing project, said in a presentation at Dryden in September 2008 that he believed a larger-scale X-48B was a high priority for his project to test new technologies.
The new Integrated Systems Research program didn't happen without a lot of planning, a little luck, strong advocates for aeronautics and many changes in programs and philosophy, Shin said.
For the past five or six years, aeronautics has been in a steady decline and the budgets were demoralizing, Shin said. Some people were wondering if aeronautics was going to continue as one of NASA's missions, he said.
"Until this fiscal year, all we could do was maintain a stable funding. But we didn't just roll over and be dormant for those three years. We did a number of things. We reformulated and reconstructed the aeronautics portfolio," he said.
Change is difficult for most people and institutions and the ARMD was no exception.
"It was hard, three years ago, when we had to make sweeping changes. No doubt about it, in 2006 we needed reformulation. We went back to our roots. We are all about doing aeronautics research, even though we support the other mission directorates. When we are talking about NASA aeronautics, we are really talking about research and development," he said.
With the reformulation complete and a clear focus on aeronautics research, Shin said it was time to take another step.
When current Acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese was associate administrator, he had approached the Integrated Systems Research Program idea with then NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. Griffin gave his support to the new initiative, but he didn't have resources to allocate to it.
In January, when Scolese began duties as acting NASA Administrator, he decided to make it an agency initiative.
"If Chris did not approve that I would not be standing here and talking to you about it." Shin said. "It doesn't make it past the gate if Chris had not taken that stand."
Shin was quick to thank the aeronautics centers for the work and support that made it possible to gain approval of a new aeronautics initiative.
"A lot of good things are happening. You should be proud that you have made contributions for us to get here. It's paying off," Shin said.
No short cuts were taken in gaining approval for the new initiative, which consists of new dollars rather than funding reassigned from other work at NASA or outside the agency, he said. For that reason, he said he believes it should be easier to continue the program through its five-year cycle and no potential partners or supporters were alienated by the appropriation.
However, Shin said the real work has just begun.
"We cannot stand still. When the good times are rolling in, that's when we need to work harder to make sure we sustain them. We are not quite ready to sustain the good times. We have areas to improve, some areas to correct, and still others where we need to make some changes," he said.
Sustaining better times will require self-assessments of where ARMD work is heading.
"We need to ask ourselves where we are. Researchers need to ask themselves, 'Do I need to change scope or direction, or do I need a few years to show tangible benefit?' We have to examine ourselves to make that assessment. We are looking to be able to sustain our prosperity and [the ARMD] may still require changes. We will use technical merits to show value for budget," Shin said.
He said he has asked a lot of the aeronautics centers, and he has received it.
"For the past three years, you guys did it. You didn't get overly depressed and frustrated. You could have walked away and sought other opportunities because you are all talented people. You stuck with us in aeronautics. I sincerely appreciate that and thank you for your commitment. Not just your commitment, but the effort you put in for which we are now reaping benefits."
By Jay Levine