NASA is working to persuade the U.S. Air Force to co-fund a flight demonstrator for an unconventional transport aircraft configuration, possibly a hybrid wing-body design for a commercial freighter or military airlifter.

“I have asked [NASA Associate Administrator for Aeronautics Jaiwon Shin] to look at ways to reach a memorandum of understanding with industry, the Defense Department and academia to look at new design concepts,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the first meeting of the National Academies’ aeronautics research and technology roundtable.

“We are trying to find $100 million to work new configurations to help the U.S. regain and retain its commercial dominance ... so we do not fall behind in the market,” he said at the meeting in Washington at the end of August.

NASA late last year awarded Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman contracts totaling $10.9 million to study advanced concepts for airliners that could enter service in 2025 with significantly reduced fuel consumption, emissions and noise.

The teams are defining concepts for aircraft that can fly at Mach 0.8 over 7,000 nm carrying 50,000-100,000 lb. of payload, either passengers or cargo, with 50% lower fuel burn and emissions compared with a GE90-powered Boeing 777.

They are also designing subscale test-bed vehicles to demonstrate the required technologies in flight. Boeing is studying a blended wing-body design, Lockheed a box-wing configuration and Northrop a B-2-like flying wing.

Shin says NASA’s aeronautics research budget, at under $570 million a year, is not enough to fund a large-scale demonstrator, but potential partners are unwilling to get involved unless the agency puts up a significant stake. As a result, he is working with Bolden to find $100 million in “new” money from elsewhere within NASA’s budget.

“It is incredible what a small amount of money can achieve,” Bolden says, acknowledging that $100 million is “a very small amount” compared with NASA’s $19 billion annual budget, 97% of which is spent on space programs.

NASA wants to fly a demonstrator around 2015. The Air Force Research Laboratory had hoped to fly an experimental advanced airlifter around the middle of the decade, but its Speed Agile program wrapped up last year without funds for a follow-on flight demonstration being identified.

The National Academies’ aeronautics research and technology roundtable has been formed to enable industry leaders to provide individual inputs to NASA as it develops an agenda for integrated systems research, including flight demonstrations.