RAMON LOPEZ / WASHINGTON DC
The US debate over research and development spending priorities is particularly vocal over the future of aeronautics. While the US Congress ultimately controls the purse strings at NASA, administrator Dan Goldin - a holdover from the Clinton presidency - has signalled clearly where he intends to spend his research dollars.
He plans to restructure aerospace research to focus resources on long-term revolutionary "leapfrog" technologies, ending NASA support for near-term product development by US industry. The restructuring is part of NASA's fiscal year 2002 budget request, which seeks a 2% increase in funding to $14.5 billion. The spending blueprint, for example, earmarks funding for "morphing aircraft" which change their shape using smart structures and controls, but is at the expense of programmes with a narrow, near-term focus.
NASA's $26 million rotorcraft programme will be terminated, since "it achieved its goals, and there is only marginal improvement left," says Goldin, adding that "NASA is no longer in the business of subsidising industry to make incremental steps. We are moving away from mature technologies to bold new technologies that will excite people to come back to aerospace. We need breakthroughs. NASA can't support companies with near-term product development."
Goldin says an R&D strategy to only undertake long-term, high-risk civil programmes reflects the market shift from the US military to the commercial sector as the major customer for aerospace products. It also accommodates the flat budgets of the past several years which "required hard decisions about research priorities," including cancellation of the High Speed Research Programme and the Advanced Subsonics Technology Project, and the planned termination of NASA's rotorcraft work. Goldin believes helicopter R&D is "too near-term and not sufficiently focused on the advanced concepts that might allow vertical flight to play a critical role in our future air transportation system."
"We're not interested in yesterday. We are here to create tomorrow. This is not your father's or your mother's NASA. So, even with a tight budget, we are reinvesting for the future," Goldin adds.
But Roy Harris, chief technical advisor for the NASA Aeronautics Support Team (NAST), says Goldin should open his eyes. The retired aeronautics director for NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, believes the USA can avoid a crisis in civil and military aviation if the nation maintains a complete aeronautics programme. The non-profit coalition says America's historic lead in aviation is at risk from continued budget cuts at NASA and fromforeign competition.
"It seems incomprehensible to us that while our European competition is calling for increased government funding for aeronautics research in order to gain leadership over the US and eliminate the only US industry that produces a large positive balance of trade, that our government is continuing to reduce its support for this investment in our future," says Harris.
"Perhaps even more important, the US transportation system is headed toward a major crisis...NASA needs to be doing more to develop solutions to the vastly more difficult problems looming the future. We understand that the budget pressures facing NASA are severe, and we understand the need for the development of new technologies for more efficient space launch capability. However, we do not believe that the nation can afford to sacrifice NASA's traditional aeronautics research role to satisfy space programme demands," Harris believes.
On the other hand, Jeremiah Creedon, director of NASA's Langley Research Centre, shares Goldin's "bold new vision for the future of aeronautics." He says: "The continued viability of aviation is not through evolutionary or near-term approaches, but through development of revolutionary advances utilising emerging technologies.
"As Mr Goldin has pointed out, the aircraft of the future will not be built of traditional, multiple, mechanically-connected parts and systems. Instead, aircraft wing construction will employ fully integrated, embedded, 'smart' materials and actuators that will operate more like a bird's wing. If we can emulate the characteristics present in nature, then we will be able to use these characteristics to develop revolutionary civil and military aircraft," Creedon says.
One avenue NASA has used to expand the aerospace research envelope over the years is the X-plane. A half a century since the Bell Aircraft X-1 first flew, there have been only 45 X-planes. Between 1944 and 1970, the USA funded almost 30 X-plane programmes, but from 1971 until 1983, experimental aircraft programmes were in limbo. The 1990s saw a resurgence, however, with manufacture of about 15 new X-planes, and a blurring of the distinction between pure research aircraft and production prototypes, such as the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) concept demonstrators.
In February, flight testing of the Boeing/EADS X-31 resumed after a six-year hiatus. The thrust-vectoring aircraft flew from the US Navy's Patuxent River, Maryland, test centre, launching the US-German VECTOR research programme. The X-31 is being used for extremely short take-off and landing (ESTOL) testing under the VECTOR project, which aims to investigate the benefits of using integrated thrust-vectoring control to reduce the runway requirements of fighter aircraft.
On 2 June, the X-43A Hyper X, a small, experimental liquid hydrogen-fuelled scramjet (supersonic combustible ramjet)-powered vehicle made its maiden voyage over the Pacific Ocean. A modified B-52 bomber carried it attached to a Pegasus rocket. The rocket was to boost the X-plane prior to releasing it but the booster was destroyed seconds after release from the B-52. At press time the programme's future was unclear.
By mid-May, the X-40A demonstrator vehicle had completed five of seven planned free flights. The vehicle is an 85% scale version of NASA X-37, a robotic spaceplane intended to be carried to orbit by the Space Shuttle and then return on its own through the atmosphere. The X-37 experimental re-entry vehicle will be used by the US space agency to test advanced technologies in space.
In March, NASA decided to stop funding the X-33 and X-34 reusable launch vehicle (RLV) technology demonstration programmes prior to test flights. NASA said benefits from flight testing did not warrant the heavy investment required. Both projects suffered considerable cost overruns and technical delays. The X-33 is a subscale, suborbital prototype of Lockheed Martin's proposed VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit RLV. The USAF and Lockheed Martin are exploring ways to resurrect the X-33 as a military programme. The unmanned single-engine Orbital Sciences X-34 reusable rocketplane was to be used to test new technologies for the development of reusable satellite launch vehicles.
NASA's Revolutionary Concepts (RevCon) programme continues to explore advanced research efforts. One project under study involves an unmanned, subscale variable diameter tiltrotor demonstrator. The APEX project, on the other hand, will validate technology for high subsonic, high-altitude aircraft, using an unmanned glider released from a balloon at 100,000ft (30,500m). Other RevCon projects involve a massive cargo airship, a flying-wing airliner and a low-cost supersonic engine.
The US space agency recently selected two research projects to demonstrate how high-altitude, unmanned air vehicles (UAV) can be used for earth science and commercial activities. The AeroVironment Pathfinder-Plus solar-powered aircraft will aid Hawaiian coffee growers, while the General Atomics Altus UAV will be used to better understand how lightning forms and dissipates during thunderstorms. NASA has earmarked about $8 million to conduct the two UAV demonstrations over the next four years, which is $4 million less than it had planned to spend on the UAV-based research.