On The Radar
The top line of NASA’s first budget request under the Biden Administration signals the organization’s clear intent to embrace the new American president’s commitment to achieving environmental sustainability. Under the heading “addressing the climate crisis at home and abroad,” NASA's financial year 2022 budget request confirms its plan for a Sustainable Flight National Partnership to develop “highly efficient” aircraft and to support new academic-led research into zero-emissions aviation.
If approved, the overall NASA budget for 2022 would be 6 percent bigger than the 2021 total, rising to $24.8 billion (see page 25 of the document). But the aeronautics line item shows a 10.4 percent increase to $915 million and is set to continue growing to reach $997 million in 2026.
Next year, the increased federal funding would release $244 million for work on what NASA calls Advanced Air Vehicles. Developers of eVTOL aircraft and the technology supporting these, including electric propulsion systems, are likely to be the main beneficiaries of this pot.
Under Integrated Aviation Systems, $302 million is available in 2022 for ongoing work on the X-57 Maxwell all-electric fixed-wing aircraft and also for the X-59 low boom supersonic flight demonstrator. However, what seems more eye-catching in this line item is that NASA intends to support design work on a “Sustainable Flight Demonstrator.” A further $148 million is earmarked for zero-emissions aviation research around what are referred to as “Transformative Aero Concepts.”
An image depicting Boeing’s concept for a transonic single-aisle airliner featuring a truss-based wing provides a clear indication of who NASA views as being in the driving seat for its efforts to achieve its objective of delivering aircraft that will be at least 25 percent more energy efficient than current equipment. Boeing understandably has not commented on the NASA proposal but now stands to be the main beneficiary of the increased funding.
Assuming NASA’s budget proposal secures Congressional approval–not necessarily a given in view of Republican hostility to any government initiative that can be characterized as part of the contentious Green New Deal policy–the rising priority of developing more sustainable aircraft reflects an apparent U.S. intent to match, if not exceed, the environmental ambitions of the European Union. Under well-funded programs such as Clean Sky 2, Airbus and a full cast of characters from the European aerospace supply chain have enjoyed star billing in aviation’s campaign to reach the zero-emissions Holy Grail. This effort could now become a more balanced transatlantic effort with the new U.S. administration grasping this challenge as an opportunity.