NASA Aeronautics in an Age of Spaceflight: Transformations

NACA LogoWhen the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) became NASA in 1958 the organizations that were still charged with aeronautical research underwent a transformation every bit as striking as the reorganization that made the great successes in spaceflight of the 1960s possible. First, the NASA budget grew rapidly but aeronautics received an ever smaller percentage of the total agency allocation. This meant, by extension, that NASA leaders paid a shrinking amount of attention to aeronautical research as time passed. Even so, because of the overall growth in the NASA budget greater opportunities existed than ever before. Those had to be seized by aerodynamics, materials, propulsion, electronics, and other types of engineers.

Second, as the years passed policy makers came to believe that aeronautics had matured sufficiently that it no longer required federal investment in to assure cutting edge capabilities. For example, in 1982 a multi-agency review of national aeronautical policy considered two key questions:

  1. Was aeronautics a mature technology, and was continued investment justified by potential benefits?
  2. What were the proper government roles in aeronautical research and technology, and did the present institutional framework satisfy these roles or should it be changed?

In answer to these questions, the report noted that while the aerospace industry was no longer a backwater as it had been when the NACA was created, it still required efforts to advance the technology and that no major alteration to the then current structure of the system was required. That investment, some concluded, could be reduced over time and perhaps eventually phased out.

The X-15 research aircraft attached to the B-52 mothership during one of its 199 missions.

The X-15 research aircraft attached to the B-52 mothership during one of its 199 missions.

At the same time that this was taking place, NASA’s aeronautics program achieved a measure of success through the continuation of many of the same types of activities that the NACA has pioneered in the immediate post-war period. For example, it developed to a high degree large cooperative R&D projects reminiscent of the early X-plane series of projects. Always these had multiple partners and often achieved astounding results. The X-15 program of the latter 1950s and 1960s, the lifting body research program of the 1960s and 1970s, and the later National Aerospace Plane and X-33 technology demonstrator exemplify this type of work.

In addition to those efforts, NASA’s efforts to achieve efficient and safer aircraft led to several truly interesting efforts. For example, NASA’s digital fly-by-wire program, its advanced turboprop effort, its “glass cockpit” of advanced avionics, its wind shear research, and a host of other projects achieved marked success. Collectively, these efforts transformed aviation by the turn of the twenty-first century.

Finally, NASA engineers developed new infrastructure supporting a range of aviation activities. Two potential areas abounded. First, the investment in computing power made possible radical new capabilities in aircraft design. Computational fluid dynamics served to make possible the transition of R&D from the longstanding reliance on wind tunnels to computer simulations for verifying performance. This had the added advantage of allowing NASA to close several of its wind tunnels since they were no longer necessary and to transition workload and investment costs to other arenas. While some engineers, especially those affectionately known as “tunnel rats,” lamented this change, it meant that the agency could accomplish more than in the past for lesser costs. Similarly, such innovations at NASA as the Massively Parallel Processor (MPP) advanced computer technologies for all manner of purposes and this found expression in the aeronautics research program as well as in myriad other areas.

Second, efforts to enhance the capabilities of the airways and air traffic control systems of the United States greater altered for the better the manner in which flight took was accomplished. Redesign of navigational, communication, and other systems tightened the system so that greater numbers of aircraft could be managed at any given time. Traffic management and overall airways structure changed in relation to these new capabilities.

Tower controllers test out NASA new surface automation tools in a simulation at NASA’s Future Flight Central air traffic control tower simulator.

Tower controllers test out NASA new surface automation tools in a simulation at NASA’s Future Flight Central air traffic control tower simulator.

As NASA matured in the 1960s, most of the aeronautics R&D programs continued in a way not dissimilar to that of the NACA. The NACA primary centers—Ames Research Center in the Bay area of California, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio—carried out the majority of all aeronautical work. In every case they got involved in spaceflight to a greater or lesser extent but remained focused on aeronautics. The flight research Center at Muroc Dry Lake in California continued its focus research and test but added space test operations to its portfolio as well.

For over five decades NASA aeronautics leaders pursued cutting edge aeronautics research, but in the 1970s it shifted somewhat from the earlier higher, faster, farther approach to one that was smarter. It has included ultra-green flying, attempts to lessen the boom in supersonic flight, developing ever more capable robotic aircraft, and harnessing advances in computers, electronics, and robotics to invent ever more capable aircraft. For example, during the early 1970s NASA established the Aircraft Energy Efficiency Program to build more fuel-efficient aircraft. With the saturation of the airways, NASA worked on both short take-off and landing aircraft and air traffic control systems. At the same time, the rise of digital computing allowed NASA the opportunity to enhance control systems beyond anything ever seen previously. Among other initiatives the digital fly-by-wire technology proved critical for several unusual, and remarkably successful aircraft designs.

Into the 1990s NASA’s aeronautics research program involved not only what had immediately presaged it but also expanded to large programs reminiscent of spaceflight projects such as the Advanced Subsonic Technology (AST) Program and the High Speed Research (HSR) Program. These efforts were enabled by an end of the Cold War dividend that allowed the NASA aeronautics budget to rise to $957 million in 1994, although it has dropped continuously thereafter. By the end of the century both AST and HSR as line items in the budget had disappeared and other research efforts were stagnating.

Later on, especially in the period since 2000, NASA has had a difficult time sustaining funding levels that would lead to a robust aeronautics research and development program. By 2004 NASA’s aeronautics budget was just over $1 billion in FY 2004; it declined to $884 million in 2007 and to $724 million in 2008. That represented a funding reduction of 32 percent over three years. This has continued to the present. The NASA aeronautics R&D budget in 2014 stood at $566 million out of a $17.7 billion dollar budget.

11664-0309101581-covers450In such an environment sustaining a useful approach to advancing key aeronautics technologies has proven a task not without difficulties. At the same time, a “brain drain” has taken place as some of the best engineers departed NASA through retirements and opportunities in other fields. To help ensure future stability the aviation community sponsored the first ever “Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future” in 2006 as a means of identifying and prioritizing critical research questions and working to obtain funding to support the most pressing issues.

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