In order to maintain US global leadership in aviation, NASA should expand its partnerships with public and private institutions and prioritize its aeronautics research according to a “decadal survey” that ranks projects based on their ability to improve the US air transportation system, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council.

“The air transportation system will need to double its capacity over the next 10 to 35 years, develop new technologies to reduce noise and emissions, and decrease the number of accidents even though the number of flights will increase substantially,” said Paul Kaminski, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of Technovation Inc., Fairfax Station, VA. “To achieve these goals efficiently, NASA should create a more balanced split between in-house and external funding of its aeronautics projects and fund the ones with the highest expected payoff.”

Although the United States has a long history as a world leader in civil and military aeronautics, this position may soon erode in the face of foreign competition, the report says. Already, US manufacturers’ share of the global market for civil aeronautics is shrinking, and US efforts to make the air transportation system more efficient, safer, and environmentally friendly may not keep pace with similar efforts in Europe and Japan in the coming decades. Maintaining global leadership in aviation will be possible only through continued investments in research and technology programs conducted jointly by NASA, industry, universities, and other government agencies, the committee said.

The report provides a list of research challenges for NASA to pursue over the next 10 years. These include developing aircraft that are quieter, more efficient, and less polluting, developing technologies to reduce delays during peak travel conditions, and designing “smart” systems that can quickly detect and respond to anomalies outside or inside a plane. NASA should have clear criteria for starting, continuing to support, and discontinuing a research project. These criteria should allow research to focus on potentially promising ideas while abandoning those that do not show satisfactory progress.

Projects that are selected should receive stable funding for a decade or more, the committee said. Funding for NASA’s aeronautics program has been severely cut during the past few years, falling from over $1 billion in fiscal year 2004 to a proposed $724 million for fiscal year 2007. Although the committee was asked not to provide budget recommendations, it stated that the challenges listed in the decadal survey could not be met if funding was cut further over the next 10 years.

To achieve the goals outlined in the report, NASA should increase cooperation with public and private organizations and share their facilities and tools for key projects. Providing funding for academic research grants would help NASA recruit new talent and foster projects that could not be achieved by the agency alone, while stronger partnerships with corporations would help facilitate the transfer of research results to industry, the report says. NASA should also cooperate with other federal agencies that support aeronautics research ’ such as the U.S. Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ’ as well as international research organizations.

NASA needs to keep abreast of research efforts pursued at other institutions to ensure that it is involved in cutting-edge aeronautics research, the report says. This may be difficult since the agency’s resources are shared between its aeronautics and space programs, and the aeronautics program does not have a clear vision akin to the space program’s plan for human exploration of the moon and Mars, the committee noted.

NASA should carefully plan how to introduce and implement new technologies in the air transportation system. The agency should help alleviate the difficulty of certifying increasingly complex systems. A