EDWARDS AFB — The Trump administration’s $21 billion budget request for 2020 for NASA is about the same as the budget enacted for the current fiscal year and is intended to further the space agency’s plans to return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.
The budget request “is strong and we have strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday in a presentation from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
While the overall theme for NASA this year and over the next decade is “Moon to Mars,” Bridenstine opened his presentation with a different area of NASA activities, one close to the Naval aviator’s heart: aeronautics research.
The programs he highlighted will use the flight test expertise of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, the agency’s primary atmospheric flight test facility and long-time home to experimental aircraft.
The center is slated for a $308.7 million budget for 2020 under the budget request released Monday.
“It was exciting to hear him talk about us before launching into Moon to Mars,” Deputy Center Director Pat Stoliker said at Armstrong on Monday. “Our budget is good and the work they’re asking us to do is as exciting as we’ve done in my career.”
The X-59 Low-boom Flight Demonstration program will use an experimental airplane designed to produce a quieter sonic boom when flying supersonic to test tolerances for those on the ground and to hopefully pave the way for commercial passenger supersonic flights over land, what Bridenstine termed as “transformative” for the way we fly.
“We have been plowing through the atmosphere at .6 Mach for 70 years, and I think it’s time we changed that, and the X-59 is our tool to do just that,” he said.
The data generated by the program will be used to help craft regulations to allow supersonic flight over land.
“We’re going to be able to go from one side of the United States to the other side of the United States in a couple of hours,” he said.
The program, which is preparing for the X-59 first flight in 2021, is fully funded in the 2020 proposed budget.
A second X-plane preparing for flight testing at Armstrong is the X-57 Maxwell, a demonstrator for future all-electric propulsion aircraft to carry cargo and passengers.
“That means we can drive down the costs of transporting people and cargo from one place to another, up to and in some cases over 60%,” Bridenstine said. This may open up commercial flights to areas not served by making it less expensive.
The X-57 itself is at Scaled Composites in Mojave, where the electric propulsion system is being integrated, and is expected to arrive at Armstrong later this year. It will undergo about six months to a year of ground testing before taking to the skies for its first flight, Stoliker said.
Getting from here to there more efficiently is also the mission of supporting urban air mobility concepts, small aircraft flying without pilots on board to move cargo and passengers from one side of a city to another, “just like you would drive a car,” he said.
NASA Armstrong is aiding in this development, including how to integrate these safely into the airspace.
These projects are part of the nearly $667 million proposed budget for the agency’s aeronautics programs.
While the aeronautics budget has seen growth in recent years, plans for a program of X-planes proposed three years ago has slowed somewhat from originally planned, Stoliker said.
While atmospheric flight test remains an important part of Armstrong’s mission, comprising about half its portfolio, the center’s expertise contributes to other NASA missions, including the Moon to Mars quest.
For example, the expertise in test flight instrumentation is being used in development of the Orion space capsule, in testing of the launch abort systems, and the center’s fiber optic strain gauges are used on the propellant tanks for the launch system, Stoliker said.
Armstrong also is host to the Flight Opportunities program, which matches technology developers with suborbital space vehicles to provide realistic testing environments to develop the capabilities that will one day be launched into space.
The center is also home to the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, a flying telescope that astronomers are using to delve into the origins of the universe, and a number of Earth Science programs using aircraft platforms to study our own world.
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