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November 24, 2004
NASA should maintain nearly all of its 31 major wind tunnel and propulsion test facilities to support research, development, production, and sustainment by the nation's aeronautics industry, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.
Wind tunnel and propulsion test facilities maintained by NASA continue to have prominent and sometimes unique positions in supporting important U.S. aeronautic objectives across the military, commercial and space sectors, according to researchers.
But unless NASA, in collaboration with the Department of Defense, addresses deficiencies, investment needs, budgetary difficulties and collaborative possibilities, the nation risks losing the competitive aeronautics advantage it has enjoyed for decades, say researchers from RAND's National Defense Research Institute.
“Some policymakers believe that the nation no longer needs to support its test facility infrastructure because the aeronautics industry has matured and should support its own infrastructure,” said Philip Anton, a co-principal investigator for the RAND project. “But the nation continues to pursue and expand the classes of vehicles it needs, pushing them to fly faster, more efficiently and quieter. As a result, these facilities are essential to meeting national aeronautic demands. Moreover, these facilities are not viable without shared financial support from NASA.”
While sophisticated computer modeling and simulation programs can replace some testing during aeronautic development, test facilities remain critical to tell designers how aerospace vehicles will behave during flight, researchers say.
Operating these major facilities accounts for less than 1 percent of the NASA budget, and just a tiny fraction of an estimated $32 billion to $58 billion the nation has invested annually over the past decade in aerospace research, development, testing and evaluation. Yet these facilities are integral to maintaining the nation's aeronautic capabilities, according to the RAND study.
Anton and his colleagues conclude that NASA should maintain nearly all of its major aeronautic test facilities as a vital part of the nation's aerospace enterprise. NASA should investigate funding alternatives to keep the facilities open, work with the Department of Defense to look for ways to jointly support NASA and defense facilities, and eliminate a backlog of maintenance activities at the facilities.
NASA operates wind tunnel and propulsion test facilities primarily at three research centers across the country. The facilities are used for NASA research, but they also are relied on by both the military and industry.
Over the past two decades, NASA has closed about one-third of its major aeronautic test facilities as utilization levels have fallen. The agency is closing several more of its facilities because testing fees cannot recover all operating costs.
RAND was asked to assess the nation's need for the agency's portfolio of facilities and provide options for managing that portfolio, based in part on a Congressional request that NASA compile a plan to both revitalize and consolidate its facilities.
After extensive interviews with government and industry officials, as well as analysis of scientific literature, RAND researchers concluded that although the nation's aeronautic industry has indeed matured, that maturity relies on the available workforce and test facility infrastructure.
While computer simulation technology is robust enough to replace some uses of wind tunnel testing, the technology is unlikely to replace wind tunnels for several decades. Indeed, wind tunnels are necessary to validate and improve computer simulation technology, according to the study.
Anton and his RAND colleagues found that about two-thirds of the NASA portfolio is both technically competitive and reasonably well utilized -- keys to a healthy and competitive portfolio.
The remaining third of the wind tunnel and propulsion test facilities, however, need shared financial support from NASA to remain viable. The expense is worth the cost because the facilities provide services that remain important to the nation's aerospace industry, according to the RAND analysis.
Steps that could save NASA money include closing two of NASA's wind tunnels that do not provide unique or competitive capabilities, according to the study. These two facilities, however, are not the ones recently closed by NASA for financial reasons; the study determined that the closed facilities remain important to industry and the military.
In addition, some of NASA's facilities are technically similar to facilities operated by the Department of Defense. The two agencies should work together to see whether resources could be consolidated and to see if a net savings would result, researchers say.
Other authors of the report include RAND researchers Eugene C. Gritton, Richard Mesic, Paul Steinberg, Dana J. Johnson, Michael Block, Michael Brown, Jeffrey Drezner, James Dryden, Tom Hamilton, Thor Hogan, Deborah Peetz, Raj Raman, Joe Strong and William Trimble.
RAND's National Defense Research Institute is a federally funded research and development center supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified commands and the defense agencies.
Printed copies of “Wind Tunnel and Propulsion Test Facilities: An Assessment of NASA's Capabilities to Serve National,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3590-8) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).
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