With nearly $60 million in new 2010 funding expected for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate and another $150 million in 2009 stimulus money, NASA Associate Administrator Jaiwon Shin is walking on air.
As the mission directorate’s top manager, Shin is planning to use the $60 million budget increase to stand up a new office focused on exploring and demonstrating some of NASA’s most promising innovations in the field of aeronautics. Dubbed the Integrated Systems Research Program, the effort will dedicate the next five or six years to maturing so-called “green aviation” technologies aimed at reducing aircraft fuel consumption, noise and emissions. With an annual budget of about $520 million, Shin attributes the recent budget boost to the solid research and results the directorate has delivered since its aeronautics research efforts were restructured in 2006. Appointed to his current post in January 2008 by then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, Shin continues to manage several portfolios under a new presidential administration and new NASA leadership. Although the mission directorate’s emphasis is cutting-edge, fundamental research in traditional aeronautical disciplines and emerging fields, Shin’s team is also developing ways to support future air and space vehicles. Shin spoke with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver have indicated a preference for shifting back to the flight demonstration projects that NASA had abandoned under former President George W. Bush, for example the supersonic transport program with Boeing. Do you see a return to such flight demos in the future?
Charlie, Lori and I have been discussing this, and we would like to either have a more direct impact to users, in this case U.S. industry, or be able to actually stimulate the industry enough that they will take on some of the technologies that NASA develops and run with them. Again, it’s not all NASA taking technologies up to a certain level and then industry picks them up. But if we can spark the enthusiasm and show the merit, industry should be able to take the technologies and use that in their applications. And it’s always desirable to demo the technology benefits in flight. Certainly you cannot do flight tests all the time, and we may not have capabilities to conduct flight tests. So, within reason. But I think what I’ve been seeing with Charlie and Lori is that we need to do more of that. We’re talking more in terms of bringing back the X-plane spirit.
So, are you talking about bringing back experimental aircraft to test new technology?
When you talk about real technology breakthroughs, I think probably everybody in the tech area would agree that there’s nothing like doing flight tests. We will continue to conduct flight tests within the budget appropriated to the mission directorate. The notion of bringing back the X-plane spirit is to bring a mindset that the mission directorate activities would recognize the value of gaining knowledge through flight tests, utilizing multipurpose flying testbeds. In other words, we would like to assess various state-of-the-art technologies in an integrated fashion in a relevant environment to expand our knowledge with an ultimate goal of bringing technological breakthroughs.
The mission directorate does not have enough funding to build and fly various testbeds, so this is our vision. Some aspects of this vision may be realized through partnerships and we would explore future opportunities for partnerships.
What are you trying to achieve under the newly established Integrated Systems Research Program (ISRP)?
We’re going to select the most promising technologies, put them together and test them in the most relevant environment for feasibility. With ISRP we are trying to harvest these good research results all coming from fundamental research and bundle them, integrate them, bring them to some tangible outcome in five or six years. It’s a higher-level research in terms of technology readiness. The first one, Environmentally Responsible Aviation, will address reducing noise, fuel emissions and consumption. The main objective is green technology. As an example, we have material work we’ve been doing to make the airframe of any aircraft system lighter. So, those materials, the fabrication technique is a new technique used to form a very complex structure without using a lot of rivets or fasteners. And we’re working on the proposals side to develop low nitrous oxide combustion. By combining the lighter structure with a highly efficient combustor, you can reduce fuel consumption.
Are there challenges associated with integrating unique technologies?
When you combine all these various technologies, you may be able to gain 40 percent to 50 percent fuel savings as a system. The trick here is they are all competing technologies. So we may be able to design an efficient low nitrous oxide combustor, but that may inhibit performance. Until we know how these various technologies interact with each other and work together to realize the anticipated benefit, we will not know how we will put them together. And we have to test in the most relevant environment.
The administration of President Barack Obama has indicated a desire to foster more international cooperation and forge new partnerships with other countries. How is aeronautics a part of this effort?
For the past year I have tried very hard to strengthen international partnerships. There has been a sort of perception and impression or bias or whatever you want to call it, that aeronautics is so competitive that if you team up with any international entities, even government-to-government, you are actually leaking our technologies funded by taxpayer dollars. But there is a foundational level of research, it may be a new algorithm or there could be some ground test that we can design together, that will generate a set of data that could benefit everybody. I’m happy to report we’ve forged a few fairly concrete partnerships, one of the most recent is sonic boom modeling working with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). People may ask what can we learn from JAXA. I’ve visited JAXA and they have come a long way. That’s one other emphasis we have, trying to get the best talents and capabilities and leverage that world wide.
How will you resist the temptation to advance promising technologies before they are mature enough to be integrated into systems-level research?
Once we build up the system level research with ISRP, that has a lot more visibility to external stakeholders because we do flight tests and more integrated experiments and so on, rather than working on individual technology. So it grabs a lot of attention. If we are not careful, unless we get yearly augmentation, which is probably not the case, you start eroding the funding going into fundamental research and new projects. I am not going to do that, because if you do that, you actually are eating your own seed corn and before you know it, you’re not actually generating good concepts or research results to build up more projects in ISRP. And the lines become very blurred between ISRP and fundamental research, and that’s not a healthy way to conduct both research programs. So we will only start new projects in ISRP if there is new funding and a real ground swelling at the national level.
What role will satellites play in the next generation air traffic control system?
They will play a lot more important role for sure. In the next-generation concept, some of the very critical concepts there are what’s called 4-D trajectory operations. 3-D is what we know, and then you add time into that, so that’s 4-D. That concept draws precision navigation and a lot more autonomous planning in the cockpit, so now what you do is file the flight plan before you take off and follow that flight plan. Mostly it’s ground-based control, radar tracked — the vision that we have is can we share some of the responsibility between the ground and the cockpit so the pilots will have a lot more latitude to decide how to fly as long as the minimum set of capabilities is established. Not all aircraft will be able to do that. But once you have that capability, airplanes can safely separate themselves and also be able to communicate among themselves to have better situational awareness. In all that, satellite communication will become much more important in future air traffic modernization efforts.
As NASA works with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a modern air traffic control system, are you hoping to allow airlines to eliminate the hub system and permit more free flight?
The vision is to allow the pilots and airline operators to have more latitude and flexibility to better route the airplanes en route. But free flight doesn’t negate the hub and spoke system. But where airlines and the FAA and industry as a whole will end up, it remains to be seen. Whatever system we end up with the free flight notion is still valid with the more precise navigation and capability based navigation. And I think the community, the airlines and FAA will probably evolve into the best operating system whether hub and spoke, a hybrid or a completely distributed system.