Report: Despite budget, NASA should fund high-risk flight research projects

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As NASA plans for programs in fiscal 2013's budget-constrained environment, it shouldn't make major cuts to its flight research program, says a March 15, NASA-commissioned report from the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, report authors urge NASA to boost funding and restart its flight research program, rather than dedicate funds to several small-scale research efforts.  

The president's fiscal 2013 budget request allocates $17.7 billion to NASA, which is a 2.24 percent decrease from the fiscal 2012 estimated spending level when accounting for inflation. The tighter budget has made NASA more risk averse than in years past, say report authors, funding a handful of safer projects. In many ways NASA is simply "protecting" existing research projects that aren't producing "anything useful," the report adds.

"The type and sophistication of flight research currently being conducted by NASA today is relatively low and that the agency's overall progress in aeronautics is severely constrained by its inability to actually advance its research projects to the flight research stage," write report authors.

The report recommends that NASA scale back its goals and select only two to five programs with potential. These should have a defined path to in-flight testing, which can be funded and conducted in a timely manner.

"[An] augmented budget of a relatively modest amount--for example, shifting only 1 percent of the overall NASA budget to aeronautics--could have a significant effect on the aeronautics program's ability to conduct flight testing of several current initiatives," says the committee report.

The report notes that NASA's diminished concentration in this area for decades has created a perception problem. Because aviation is a mature field, some believe there is not a strong role for government-funded research, write report authors. But, the economic environment means NASA and the Defense Department actually have a greater role because industry "cannot and will not take on the full cost risk of moving technologies from the laboratory to operations," say report authors.

For more:
- see the National Academies Press report

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