NASA plans faster, open-minded aeronautics research
20 June 2014, 12:35 p.m. EDT
By Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America editor-in-chief
NASA is in the process of realigning its aeronautics research operations to bring a renewed focus on X-planes and accelerate progress toward overland supersonic combustion, cleaner-burning engines, alternative fuels and breakthroughs in detect-and-avoid technologies for unmanned craft.
Those are among the goals laid out in NASA’s “Aeronautics Research Strategy Vision” released in August 2013. The four NASA officials whose jobs will be to make that vision a reality appeared Friday on the panel, “NASA Aeronautics Vision for the 21st Century.”
The session was led by Robert Pearce, the director for strategy, architecture and analysis in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters. Pearce described the research thrusts as they exist today, but said the agency must also be ready to embrace future “big ideas.”
One goal, said Pearce, will be to “bring back that spirit of the X-plane.” He cautioned that “clearly, X-planes can be resource intensive,” so “we’re going to have to find creative ways to do that.” He said partnerships would be important. Pearce didn’t specifically mention the agency’s proposal to develop a plane to demonstrate a low-sonic-boom aerodynamic shape, but he said “if we can overcome the challenges of the boom…I think that will become a very important part of the aviation system.”
A major thrust for NASA is to accelerate its aeronautics research and inject the results into the economy. The agency wants to reverse the “inverse dog years” calculation for how long it takes to get new technology into operations, said John Cavolowsky, program director for airspace operations and safety.
Panelist Ed Waggoner described the goal this way: “Can NASA’s research operate at the speed of business?” Waggoner is the agency’s program director for integrated aviation systems.
Pearce said researchers are being encouraged to think in a “multi-disciplinary” way and to look at new materials, such as composites.
Specifically, innovation and fresh thinking will be needed for “turning the corner” to actually reduce carbon emissions from jets, Pearce said. “That’s a very laudable goal, a very tough goal for the industry to meet, given the growth that’s going to occur.”
Jay Dryer, program director for advanced air vehicles, made the case for accepting technical risks. Our role is to “advance the state of the art,” and “sometimes these things won’t work out,” but “I want to emphasize we’re about taking technical risk in what we do,” he said.
Specifically, Dryer said he wants to test the feasibility of getting beyond “tube and wing” designs for aircraft. “What might some of those vehicles look like?” he added.
Douglas Rohn, the program director for transformative aeronautics concepts, said better analytical software will be required, including for computational fluid dynamics. “What are the future revolutions? What are the new tools we will need in order to support some of the breakthroughs that are coming?”
As for the reason to realign, Cavolowsky said the decision wasn’t “because something was broken.” The changes “provide better alignment” to the strategic vision for NASA’s aeronautics research.
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