NASA produces new plan after being heavily criticised for cutting back on research to pay for the space station

NASA's efforts to revitalise US aeronautics research will focus on increasing airspace capacity, creating environmentally compatible aircraft, enhancing aviation safety and security and developing the aerospace workforce. The agenda is outlined in an "aeronautics blueprint" drawn up after the agency was heavily criticised for cutting back on research to pay for the International Space Station (ISS).

Research priorities outlined by the blueprint include digital airspace modelling in an effort to reduce delays due to weather, increase airport capacity and eliminate the knock-on effect of disruptions on the air transport system. Security and safety priorities include aircraft hardening, flight monitoring, and development of surveillance and intervention technologies. NASA will also seek to rekindle interest in aerospace among students in a bid to maintain a skilled workforce.

Under its revolutionary vehicles initiative, NASA plans to focus on integrated airframe and propulsion systems for higher performance, improved safety and lower noise and emissions. The agency believes today's aircraft "weigh twice as much, use 75% more fuel and create four times the noise of the technically possible 'to be' aircraft" envisaged by its aeronautics blueprint. Technologies to be pursued include high-strength "nanomaterial" composites, active flow control, all-electric propulsion and power (P&P), and intelligent control systems.

Although NASA has raised funding for aerospace technology by 11% in the fiscal year 2003 budget request, through cutting spending on the ISS and Space Shuttle, most of the increase will go towards the Space Launch Initiative to develop technology for a second-generation reusable launch vehicle. Funding for aeronautics will actually decrease 9%. As a result, the agency plans closer co-operation on research with the US Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense.

Rotorcraft research, for example, will be funded by the US Army, with NASA focusing on technologies such as intelligent controls that apply more widely to runway-independent aircraft, says associate administrator for aerospace technology Sam Venneri. NASA will also support the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's work to reduce sonic boom under the Quiet Supersonic Platform programme, he says.

NASA will pursue three areas under the P&P heading, says Venneri: improving fuel efficiency under the Ultra-Efficient Engine Technology programme; working with industry to reduce noise under the Quiet Aircraft project; and advanced research into all-electric propulsion. The latter will require a 10-fold improvement in electrical power generation and storage using hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells to become practical, says Venneri. "Smaller aircraft would come first, but if we could leapfrog in efficiency we could have electric aircraft."

Source: Flight International