With its future budgets tied up in space, NASA is focusing aeronautics research on technologies that no-one yet wants. Should it?

Once an engine of innovation, NASA's aeronautics research has been in freefall since cancellation of its High Speed Research programme in 1999, when Boeing pulled out of plans to develop a prototype next-generation supersonic transport. Since then, the agency's funding for aeronautics research has dropped from over $1 billion to the $852 million sought in the fiscal year 2006 budget request released last week. And the decline does not stop there. Under budget plans unveiled by NASA last week, funding for aeronautics research will drop to $727 million by FY2009 - 23% lower than projected just a year ago.

Contrast this with the European Union's spending on aeronautics research, up from a paltry €35 million ($45 million) in 1990-91 to around €850 million in the 2002-06 Sixth Framework programme now under way. The biggest fall in NASA's funding is in its Vehicle Systems programme, under which it develops technology for future civil aircraft. This is cut to just $365 million in the FY2006 budget request. In FY1999, NASA spent that much on its High Speed Research and Advanced Subsonic Transport programmes alone, plus another $420 million on a range of basic aeronautics research and technology work. So what does NASA plan to spend its much-reduced aeronautics budget on? Just four flight demonstrations is the answer: a low-boom supersonic aircraft; a subsonic aircraft so quiet it can only be heard within the airport boundary; a zero-emissions aircraft; and a remotely operated aircraft that can stay aloft for 14 days.

The first reaction on looking at the list is: "What are these guys smoking?" Contrast NASA's "blue sky" projects with Europe's Sixth Framework aeronautics programmes, which include all-composite wing and fuselage structures, efficient low-noise aeroengines and all-weather hazard protection systems, and a difference in emphasis is clear. Has the once vaunted NASA simply lost the plot? Has the cost of returning the Space Shuttle to flight, completing the International Space Station and setting off to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond finally killed off the first A in NASA?

The answer is no, but a qualified no, which poses problems for the US civil aircraft industry and raises questions about the role of government in funding aerospace research. NASA's research plans reflect its budget reality. Less than 10% of its FY2006 request is for aeronautics - this will fall to less than 6% by FY2010 as space exploration spending ramps up. With less cash, NASA is looking for the best way to spend it and its answer is to narrowly focus its research on four "breakthrough" technology demonstrations. Each tackles just one barrier, be it achieving an acceptable sonic boom or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions. Each is intended to recreate the excitement that accompanied last year's record-breaking hypersonic flights of NASA's experimental X-43A. And, like the X-43, none of them produces a demonstrator that, with only a little work, can be turned into a useable product by industry. If the demonstrators succeed, it could be another 10 years before the technology shows up in real aircraft.

Europe's aeronautics research is pre-competitive, and performed by large consortia of industry and academia, but is it focused on producing results that can be applied to products in the near- and medium-term. It is also guided by a strategic research agenda drawn up by European industry itself with the openly acknowledged aim of wresting leadership of the civil aviation industry away from the USA.

NASA, meanwhile, wryly acknowledges that none of its vision vehicles, except perhaps the quiet supersonic aircraft, are yet on industry's horizon. In the US way of thinking, near-term product-related R&D is for industry to fund, while government funds are used to support long-term blue-sky research from which there will be no return, if any, for several years.

Whatever the opinion of the relevance of NASA's chosen projects to the needs of aircraft makers and buyers, they have been chosen to benefit as wide an industrial base as possible, from engine manufacturers to start-up companies in the UAV industry. The benefits just won't be coming any time soon, which leaves industry with a gap in its R&D funding portfolio.

In the USA, if companies fund near-term product R&D and government funds long-term technology breakthroughs, who supports the pre-competition research needed to advance aerospace in the medium term? In Europe, if government supports near- to medium-term pre-competitive, product-oriented R&D, who invests in the revolutionary thinking that breaks through technology barriers? One thing is certain - neither side has it quite right.

Source: Flight International