NASA Targets Sustainable Airliner X-Plane Launch For Fiscal 2022

NASA favors a transonic truss-braced wing for its subsonic X-plane, but is polling industry for other ideas..
Credit: NASA

Within a budget request for aeronautics research in fiscal 2022 of $914.8 million, up from $828.7 million enacted for 2021, NASA plans to accelerate the launch of the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator program to produce a full-scale, ultra-efficient subsonic X-plane.

The agency also plans to conduct design and readiness reviews with two teams selected for the Electric Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) program. NASA also expects to conduct the first flights of two X-planes in fiscal 2022: the X-59 low-boom supersonic flight demonstrator and X-57 distributed electric propulsion demonstrator. 

The 2022 budget request released May 28 seeks increased funding to accelerate NASA’s proposed Sustainable Flight National Partnership (SFNP) with U.S. industry, the centerpiece of which is an X-plane demonstrating technologies for a next-generation single-aisle airliner. The goal of the partnership is to enable by the early 2030s an aircraft 25% more fuel efficient than today’s airliners.

Under the SNFP, NASA plans to demonstrate a high-power hybrid-electric propulsion system for large transport aircraft; the high-efficiency transonic truss-braced wing configuration; composites structures capable of being produced at four to six times the rate possible with current technology; and small-core turbine engines with high thermal efficiency. The X-plane would integrate these technologies and validate the benefits.

The additional funding sought for 2022 would accelerate first flight of the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator to fiscal 2026, fund at least two major electrified power-train flight demonstrations in 2024 and speed up subsonic technology development by at least two years. The funding also would enhance air traffic management automation tools to enable flightpaths optimized to minimize carbon emissions.

The goal of the acceleration is to have technologies ready by the mid- to late 2020s for transition to U.S. industry’s next-generation single-aisle airliner. NASA also has increased the funding sought for university-led teams developing “revolutionary, beyond-next-generation, zero-emissions aircraft concepts” such as designs using superconducting electric power trains and cryogenic hydrogen fuel.

At least two contracts for 1-megawatt-class electrified power-train demonstrators will be awarded this year, with the goal of flying the technologies required to enable large hybrid-electric propulsion systems for single-aisle aircraft. This first generation of hybrid-electric systems is expected to improve propulsion efficiency by 5% while substantially reducing maintenance costs, NASA said.

NASA is seeking $91.2 million for the EPFD in fiscal 2022, an increase of almost 17% over 2021, with funding projected to peak at $128.6 million in fiscal 2023. The program is estimated to cost $310-470 million in total. NASA also is seeking $135.7 million in 2022 for its Integrated Aviation Systems Program, which includes the launch of the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator program.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.