Promoting Research Collaboration

by

Mission: To foster research collaboration among national laboratories, universities and industry to stimulate innovation and creativity; provide comprehensive graduate and continuing education in science and engineering; incubate commercialization of new intellectual property developed through NIA’s research activities; and promote aerospace science and engineering through outreach programs.

Top official: Robert E. Lindberg, president and executive director

Established: 2002

Location: Hampton, Va.

Annual budget: $30 million

Personnel: Approximately 200, including students and consultants

Customers: NASA, primarily NASA Langley Research Center; Federal Aviation Administration; Department of Energy; U.S. Army Research Laboratory; U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; U.S. Air Force; National Science Foundation; and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

WASHINGTON — By the time the White House proposed canceling NASA’s Constellation program in February, the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) had spent several years providing the agency with research and analysis in support of the Moon-focused architecture. So the nonprofit education and research organization switched gears over the summer and pulled together a cadre of NASA civil servants, university professors and graduate students to consider alternatives to Constellation that could meet U.S. President Barack Obama’s stated goal of sending humans to visit an asteroid in 2025 as a steppingstone on the way to Mars.

“Our faculty is very interested in what direction the NASA space exploration architecture might take in the future,” Robert Lindberg, president and executive director of the Hampton, Va.-based organization, said in a Nov. 24 interview. “We had been working for a couple of years contributing [research] to the planning for going back to the Moon. And now that that’s changed, we’ve started to look jointly with NASA and a couple of our faculty members at what other architectures that might involve.”

Established in 2002 as a strategic partner to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, the graduate education institute is a consortium of leading research universities brought together to conduct innovative aerospace and atmospheric research while inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Most of the institute’s projects are funded by Langley, with support from other federal agencies as well as industry.

The impromptu summer study of Constellation alternatives, which Lindberg said was funded on the margins of the NIA’s $30 million annual budget, illustrates the flexibility nongovernment organizations can offer in support of federal agencies.

“Sometimes we can respond to opportunities more quickly than a government agency can because of the regulations that constrain them,” Lindberg said, adding that the findings of the summer study group were sent to NASA Langley for review. He also said NIA is planning a more robust, government-funded graduate summer program to address manned space exploration technologies next year.

Lindberg said the institute’s graduate education program offers students an uncommon opportunity to fulfill residency requirements at NIA while conducting research in NASA labs, rather than at their home campus. In addition, students can take up to half their course work from other universities in the consortium.

“It has the effect of being able to attract some of the top students from around the country,” he said.

In addition to utilizing facilities at nearby Langley, NIA graduate students, faculty and researchers soon will have access to the organization’s new laboratory complex currently under construction at its Hampton office location. The organization recently broke ground on a 5,500-square-meter expansion that will include laboratory and research facilities that can be quickly adapted to suit specific research needs, including a high bay that could be used for full-scale integration and test of flight hardware, Lindberg said.

“What we saw was the need to reconfigure spaces as needed to accommodate whatever projects are coming in and whatever the thrust that we see that we wish to strategically pursue,” he said.

Calvin Lowe, NIA vice president of research, said the NIA expects projects to come and go, and has designed lab space to be flexible. In addition, the facility will house small startup companies under an economic development partnership with the Hampton Technology Incubator program. Additional space is available for future expansion.

“It’s a $12 million project,” Lowe said of the expansion in a Nov. 18 interview, adding that one of the laboratories in the new facility will be used in part to conduct joint research with Langley and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in nearby Newport News, Va., on boron nitride nanotubes.

“We’re looking at ways to grow those materials and to incorporate them into lightweight structures,” Lowe said of the tiny, tube-like structures. “This lab is going to focus on the technique we have developed jointly on how to grow those materials.”

Lowe said other laboratory facilities will support research into unmanned aircraft with morphing airframes designed to change shape before, during and after flight, and small, bird-sized flapping-wing vehicles.

“Part of the idea is to make sure we don’t duplicate the very fine facilities we have a mile away at Langley Research Center, but rather to enhance those facilities,” Lowe said.

Although a majority of the research at NIA is not focused on space, “a good portion of our graduate students are working doing research in space, and we have researchers on staff and visiting researchers that do space,” according to Doug Stanley, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and NIA resident engineer who led NASA’s 2005 Exploration Systems Architecture Study.

Stanley said the institute has supported a broad variety of NASA research projects, including studies of on-orbit propellant depots, in-situ resource utilization on Mars, tool design and development for space habitats, advanced propulsion concepts, hypersonic vehicles and instruments for climate research.

He said NIA currently is supporting NASA’s effort to define alternative architectures for human spaceflight missions beyond low Earth orbit, though the institute is still providing support for elements of the Constellation program that are continuing under a stopgap spending measure Congress approved Dec. 1 that keeps existing government programs funded until a new appropriation is approved for the current budget year.

“We continue to support activity on the lunar architecture team, the Constellation architecture team, and now the HEFT,” Stanley said Nov. 18, referring to his role as a red-team member on the Human Exploration Framework Team NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tasked earlier this year with fleshing out future manned space exploration architectures.