WASHINGTON — A National Research Council (NRC) review of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate recommended that NASA trim all but the most essential programs from its overburdened, underfunded aeronautics research portfolio so that more new technology can reach the flight demonstration stage.

“The type and sophistication of flight research currently being conducted by NASA today is relatively low and … the agency’s overall progress in aeronautics is severely constrained by its inability to actually advance its research projects to the flight research stage,” the NRC report read.

The report, “Recapturing NASA’s Aeronautics Flight Research Capabilities,” was released March 15 by the NRC’s Committee to Assess NASA’s Aeronautics Flight Research Capabilities.

The NRC committee said that because additional aeronautics funding is unlikely in the current budget environment, NASA should focus on two to five high-risk, high-reward projects. The latest NRC decadal survey, a list of priorities drafted in 2006 by engineers and scientists, identified 51 high-priority aeronautics research areas.

The NRC committee left NASA to determine which projects should have priority. However, the council said, spending on the chosen programs should total no more than $30 million to $50 million over three years, or $10 million to $15 million per project per year. NASA should also ensure that all of these programs result in flight demonstrations, the committee said.

In addition, the report said, NASA should launch one “new innovative air vehicle” project per year.

“An ambitious Unmanned Aerial Vehicle project could be built at the lower end of the [price] range, while a more ambitious piloted vehicle could be built at the higher end,” the committee said in the report.

NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington said the agency mostly agreed with the report’s findings but stopped short of a wholesale endorsement of NRC’s recommendation to put developing technology on the fast track to flight.

“We will take the committee’s recommendations under careful consideration to ensure we are making the best investment of taxpayer dollars, whether through flight tests or other means,” Harrington said March 15 in response to a query.

But given the budget NASA has received for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, the number in the decadal survey is far too high, NRC said in its latest review. NASA aeronautics funding has hovered around $500 million in recent years.

“One of the major problems facing NASA’s aeronautics program is that it has been directed to pursue a large number of goals, but it clearly lacks the resources to accomplish more than a few of them,” the NRC committee wrote in the March 15 report.

The NRC report suggested that NASA seek financial and program aid from other federal agencies on certain types of projects.

For example, NASA could cooperate with the Federal Aviation Administration on projects that seek to quiet the sonic boom that occurs when aircraft break the sound barrier, and with the Department of Defense on advanced supersonic propulsion research.

For hypersonic research, the NRC said, NASA should seek aid from the Defense Department and in particular from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

NASA’s 2013 budget request includes $552 million for aeronautics, about $18 million less than what Congress approved for 2012. The cut came almost entirely out the fundamental aeronautics research program, where NASA conducts core research and development for fixed-wing, rotary-wing, subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic aircraft.

The changes, NASA said in budget documents, are intended “to facilitate research on targeted advanced vehicle and technology capabilities.”



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.