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NIA Aero

 Title: "Future NASA Aircraft Research Program"

Sponsor: National Institute of Aerospace

Objective: Responding to a Congressional request, ASDL supported NIA in developing a national plan outlining the future of NASA's aeronautical research.

From the introduction to the final report:

The United States of America has been the undisputed world leader in aviation technology since the end of World War II. The aviation industry accounts for a very large fraction of all U.S. exports, and aviation jobs are among the highest paid per-capita of any industrial sector. The aviation industry has, in all candor, been a cornerstone of American defense, a staple of American prosperity, and a symbol of American ingenuity for more than six decades.
Today, the U.S. position as world leader in aviation is no longer undisputed. We are being challenged not on the basis of corporate competition, but increasingly on the basis of national competition. A new, united Europe has already surpassed the U.S. in a variety of key aviation sectors. Further, the European Union has plainly stated that their goal is to dominate the aviation industry by 2020. Europe is presently investing heavily in the long-term research necessary to make this a reality within the next fifteen years. And the future looks set to bring even more competition, particularly from Asia. China is rapidly industrializing, and if its present pace of technological advance can be sustained, they will likely overtake the U.S. in 10-20 years.

This state of affairs has spawned a series of increasingly alarming reports over the past five years. More prominent among these are the Aerospace Commission Report and the National Research Council Report, both of which highlighted the gathering threat to American industry. This is a threat that is rooted not in capitalism, but in a sort of “technological socialism” wherein governments directly support research and development of commercial products meant to compete on the open market.

In 2003, with these prior reports framing the problem, the U.S. Congress considered the next logical step needed to address the threat. That next step was the development of a specific plan of action to safeguard American interests and ensure American leadership in aviation technology. Congress therefore mandated as part of its FY2004 NASA appropriations legislation, that a five-year research plan and budget be constructed by a team of industry and academic experts. This document is the embodiment of that vision.

This plan is not a government plan, nor is it entirely an industry/academia plan. Rather, it is an American plan, one crafted for the sole purpose of outlining what the nation must do if it desires to retain its position as the world leader in aeronautics and aviation. The team members were selected in part for their external perspective of the aeronautics industry. No attempt was made to address the political ramifications of supporting any particular project, nor was it the team’s mandate to do so. Projects and technologies were considered based strictly on the merits of their impact in addressing a set of six national needs. This plan should therefore be regarded as a simple estimate of the technical advances required to maintain U.S. superiority, offered by people whose principal occupation is the development and application of aviation technology.

The task of overseeing the construction of this plan fell to the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA). NIA in turn sought out recognized industry and academia experts from seven principal aviation sectors. This core group of eleven senior experts became the National Strategy Team (NST). The mandate given to the National Strategy Team was clear: guide the development and delivery to Congress of an aggressive five-year investment plan to restore aviation and aeronautics technological capabilities to a robust level commensurate with a global leadership position.

The National Strategy Team approached this task by first setting a strategic agenda for overall research, analysis and planning activities. This included defining a set of six over-arching national needs as well as setting research scope and priorities for each of the seven sectors. These sectors were then subdivided into a total of 17 smaller subsectors, with each subsector being given a target Research and Technology (R&T) investment goal and a five-year timeline as the only bounding constraints. NIA then conducted a competition through a Request for Proposal process and awarded contracts to recognized leaders in each of the 17 subsectors. The subsector teams were charged with the responsibility for developing detailed research and technology plans for their respective subsectors. Each subsector plan was required to contain a suite of projects, each project having a schedule with rigorous technical and budget milestones to gauge progress toward achieving subsector and national needs. These project plans were developed with enough detail to enable reasonable assessment of risks and costs (including facility and laboratory requirements) associated with each major demonstration milestone. A further requirement was that the subsector plans were not to be company- or university-specific, but instead structured as generic plans intended to be integrated into a larger comprehensive plan.

The specific approach used by each subsector team to develop their detailed plans varied, but all generally followed a similar path. The subsector teams started by reviewing the FY05 NASA goals, objectives, and roadmaps, assuming that this plan represented the baseline set of existing R&T programs. They next identified technological gaps in the established plan and developed expert consensus as to where the key shortfalls were in their subsector. This then became the basis for selection of specific projects to address those shortfalls.

Since the subsector teams are composed of disciplinary experts, each team was able to provide unique insight regarding detailed R&T opportunities and investment requirements that would ultimately become the elements of the final R&T plan. Further, the detailed technical knowledge contained in the subsector teams enabled each to derive a detailed set of prioritized research and technology projects that would have the greatest possible impact on subsector goals and in turn, national needs.
The detailed subsector plans were delivered to the NIA and to a dedicated report integration team. The mandate of the integration team was to fuse the subsector plans into a single, comprehensive plan with guidance from the National Strategy Team. In order to do this effectively, it was imperative that integration team members be embedded within the various subsector teams as unobtrusive observers. As the subsector teams developed their plans, the integration team was privy to the thought processes and assumptions that went into each plan. This information would later be crucial in identifying key cross-cutting technologies that impact multiple subsectors as well as identifying redundant projects amongst subsectors.
Once all the subsector plans were assembled into a comprehensive plan package, the next step was to present the data in a form suitable for the National Strategy Team to use in down-selecting to a final plan recommendation. This was done by creating an interactive spreadsheet-based “calculator” tool capable of instantaneously updating the technology plans based on team inputs. This enabled the National Strategy Team to easily examine multiple scenarios and perform real-time “what if” analysis. Specific inputs to this “calculator” tool include: relative importance weighting on each of the six national needs, total research budget, and funding splits amongst subsectors. The underlying plan calculation logic embedded within this tool was established via a rigorous and traceable process whereby the projects defined in each sector are mathematically mapped to a National Needs Impact score.
The National Strategy team used the aforementioned tool to optimize the overall mix of subsector projects so as to have the highest possible benefit per dollar spent. Further, the total plan was sized to provide the level of research investment required to ensure that the nation’s future air transportation needs are met and that the U.S. remains the world leader in aviation. It is an aggressive five-year plan focused on maturing high-risk, potentially high-payoff technologies that build on FY05 NASA Aeronautics investments. It incorporates projects pertaining to virtually every aspect of aviation including: aviation systems; air traffic management; aeronautical systems and vehicles design & manufacturing; aviation safety & security; and other critical areas of research and technology development. It is an apolitical prioritization of research effort based on each subsector’s ability to respond to the national needs and thus contribute to the quality of life of all Americans. If this plan or one similar to it were to be funded, it would indeed answer the call to resuscitate the U.S. aeronautics industry and provide the foundation for continued U.S. aviation leadership into the next decade.