Is NASA's aeronautics research misdirected and irrelevant, or is it the victim of its own success in producing meaningful results despite insignificant funding? And does a commercial aerospace industry with record orderbooks even need government R&D support?

These are questions the agency's aeronautics research leadership is wrestling with as it tries to make more of its meager budget—just 3% of NASA's total—even as funding is being reduced again. Their answer, for now, is to try to convince their industry and government partners to agree on priorities for U.S. aeronautics research and push for public-private funding of two or three big-ticket, national-level X-plane programs.

A problem for NASA aeronautics is the success of its 2006 restructuring to focus on fundamental research. After five years of relative stability, many technologies are reaching a maturity where they require expensive demonstrations, including flight tests, to move to the next level of readiness and closer to being usable by industry. Examples include low-boom supersonic aircraft, which must be demonstrated in flight if regulators are to be convinced to remove the ban on civil supersonic flight over land.

“Strong, coherent fundamental research is yielding good results,” says Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for aeronautics. “We have a lot of good technologies being worked on, but if you ignore the water filling up the dam, something bad will happen.”

To provide an outlet, NASA must find a way to take the most promising research to a technology readiness level (TRL) high enough to be picked up by industry for product development. Shin hopes Congress can be persuaded to provide new funding, but a report by the National Research Council (NRC) says NASA should cut back on the breadth of its aeronautics research to free up funds to return to X-plane flight demonstration.

“Two years ago we worked hard to bring in new money to start the Integrated Systems Research Program [ISRP], with more flight research,” Shin says. “Without getting new money, it is awfully tempting to redirect $100 million to create another big program so we can do more higher-TRL research, in supersonics for example. But I want to try the successful path we walked down with ISRP before I take dollars from fundamental research, because I know where that will end—the water will dry up. Without new money, you start big stuff now and two years later the whole thing collapses.”

That was the pattern from 2000, when NASA's aeronautics program began its decline, to 2006, when it was restructured. Over the past decade, annual funding has fallen from more than $1 billion to around $550 million for fiscal 2013 and beyond (see charts). But even as the aeronautics budget shrank 40% from 2006 to 2011, the directorate's workforce dropped just 4%, the NRC report says, noting the fixed portion of the budget for personnel is now 56%, and facilities maintenance another 14%. “The fixed cost for salaries and facilities severely limits the resources that can be effectively committed to flight research,” the report says.

“One of the major problems facing NASA's aeronautics program is that it has been directed to pursue a large number of goals, but clearly lacks the resources to accomplish more than a few of them,” concludes the report, “Recapturing NASA's Flight Research Capabilities.” The 51 high-priority challenges identified in 2006 by an NRC decadal survey of civil aeronautics “is too high [a number] for NASA to achieve meaningful progress, given existing resources,” it says.

“The decadal survey was an attempt to define areas of focus, but without a very sharp prioritization,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Wesley Harris, who chaired the committee that produced the report. “Compound that with a more or less constant workforce and a budget that is declining in real terms and it is very difficult [for NASA's aeronautics directorate] to respond in setting priorities.”

Commissioned by the aeronautics directorate, the NRC report is one of several efforts by NASA to get its industry and government partners to agree on research priorities. “I want to try the successful path we used with ISRP. That is why we have started building up a sense of what is important at a national level,” says Shin. “We are hoping for a groundswell, a clear articulation of a national agenda.”

Shin points to the success of NASA's science mission directorate in identifying scientific needs and defining missions that should be pursued. “We want to mimic that in aerospace, but there are naysayers,” he says. “We need to have this meeting of minds, to identify what needs to be taken to a higher TRL. NASA, Boeing or the Defense Department cannot do it alone; it has to be a community effort,” he says.

The goal is to identify “two or three big-ticket, national-level efforts” the Defense Department, NASA and FAA can take to their Office of Management and Budget examiners and industry can take to Congress in a bid to secure new funding. “We want to try to do that before siphoning off money from fundamental research,” Shin says. High on the list of potential projects is a large-scale subsonic transport demonstrator that could prove an unconventional configuration for a civil freighter and military airlifter.

The need to revitalize NASA's flight research is urgent, the NRC report's authors believe. “We need it yesterday, not 10 years from now,” Harris says. “The committee firmly believes flight research is a vital tool to advance aerospace systems, interacting with ground-test analysis and numerical simulation from basic research through to full maturity.”

Agreeing that “NASA needs to bring back X-planes,” Shin says flight testing must be an integral part of aeronautics research. “In the past we looked at flight research as a culmination, a gala event at the back end of a program that proved the technology. But that no longer applies. We have to embed flight into our daily research activity.”

But persuading the administration and Congress the U.S. aerospace industry needs more R&D support, not less, will be far from easy. “Talking to policymakers, they see how well Boeing, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney are doing and think the industry is sitting pretty,” says Shin. “And they will have good sales for years to come, so it is tempting for policymakers to say that the U.S. aerospace industry is very robust, [so] why is NASA still spending aeronautics R&D dollars?”

So NASA is taking a long view, focusing research on environmental challenges civil aviation may face and on configurations that could create new opportunities. “NASA needs to develop technology that will enable completely new capabilities that industry and government will relate to, which are highly risky, but will lead to completely new markets. We are not worried about existing markets, but about where are the markets?”

Shin's strategy of holding out for new money is itself highly risky. “There is no guarantee this will succeed. And, you may ask, without a guarantee are we not just kicking the can down the road?” he says. “But if the content is good, the argument strong and we have a national consensus and we don't get money, then there is a very different reason,” he says. “If we fail to get new money, we are going to fail anyway, for budget, political or socio-economic reasons.”

The critical question, Shin says, is whether NASA pull this off. “Can we do it? When I started at NASA there were multiple manufacturers and integrators. We couldn't pull together a consensus then. Now I see the possibility,” he says. “Global competition is huge, and there is only one U.S. large civil integrator and two major engine manufacturers. The Defense Department, FAA and NASA are all under budget pressure. That presents an opportunity to instill a sense of urgency in the community.”