While I’ve opined about the dismaying state of the National Labs (meaning the DOE, NNSA or Weapons’ Labs), the state of affairs I deal with are splendid when compared to what NASA is dealing with. NASA is in terrible shape, particularly with respect to aeronautics. I’d say the support for the planetary exploration is dismal, but it is vibrant compared to the support for things aircraft related. When I’ve visited their centers, the sense of decay and awful morale is palpable. Aeronautics and almost everything about it is woefully stagnant with research support having dried up. Part of this lack of support has been a signaling by industry that research isn’t needed. The tragedy is that it shouldn’t be this way. How can something that has been so transformative to society be so abysmally supported?
Air flight has been one of the several things to utterly transform the World in the past century. Travel across the country or even more across the ocean used to be life altering lasting months or years and had the potential to completely change the course of one’s life. Now we can do any of these things in less than a day. Prior to the Internet, the ubiquity of air travel and the speed of transport had remade the globe. Despite our massive investment in air travel (planes, airports, defense, etc.) the support for scientific research has all but disappeared. I think the current lack of progress is primarily a self-fulfilling prophecy. If no effort it put into progress, progress will stop. There are several issues at play here, not the least of which is a lack of vision, and prognostications that are blatantly pessimistic including one that has become infamous. These prognostications have lacked balance and perspective on where the engines of progress arise.
I was reminded of this state of affairs during my weekly visit to “Another Fine Mesh” (http://blog.pointwise.com). Every Friday, this site publishes a set of links to interesting computational fluid dynamics (CFD) stories. I usually find at least one if not more items of significant interest. Last Friday a real gem was first up in their weekly post, a pointer to a NASA White Paper with a fantastic vision for CFD in 2030 (NASA Vision, CFD 2030 Vision, http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20140003093). The report is phenomenal. It provides a positive and balanced view of what can and needs to be accomplished to push CFD for aeronautics forward. A lot of what they discuss is totally on target. The biggest idea is that if we invest in progress we will be able to do some great things for aeronautics. Despite being truly visionary I would say that the authors don’t go far enough in spelling out what could be accomplished.
This NASA vision is running counter to the trend of declining effort, which has a lot of foundational reasons, not the least of which is disappearing support for research federally. Moreover the money spent on federal R&D is horribly inefficient due to numerous useless strings attached. In spite of significant money spent toward research, the amount of real effort has been seriously declining through systematic mismanagement and other disruptive forces. Congress who whines incessantly about waste in spending is actually the chief culprit. They add enormous numbers of wasteful requirements and needless accounting structure onto an already declining budget. They propagate the environment that kills risk taking by demanding no effort fail, and by virtue of this imperative virtually assure failure.
Intellectually, Phillip Spalart of Boeing Aerospace has a paper to which the decline in aeronautics is tied. It isn’t clear if this is more of reason as opposed to being simply an excuse. Spalart projected that the next turbulence modeling advance known as Large Eddy Simulation (LES) would not be truly useful til 2030 or even 2045 because of the computational needs for computing full wing or aircraft flows at flight conditions. You can read Spallart’s important paper at https://info.aiaa.org/tac/ASG/GTTC/Future%20of%20Ground%20Test%20Working%20Group/Reference%20Material/spalart-2000-DNS-scaleup-limits-IJHFF.pdf .
Philosophically, the largest issue with his approach is the fundamental scarcity mentality playing into the assumptions used in making the estimates. Unfortunately, the thinking involved in the LES estimates seems to be common today. It is both too common and dangerous, if not out-and-out destructive to our future.
There are serious problems with how Spalart approached his estimates. Most critically he applied the estimation techniques of 1999 too far into the future. He is assuming that no major discoveries will be made that will impact the efficiency of LES. These changes would be major model improvements, algorithms and theory developments that would more radically change computational efficiency than the computers themselves. I’ve written over the past couple of months about this. The elements in computational science outside computing hardware have always yielded more effective gains. Instead of waiting til 2030 or 2045 we might be looking at meaningful LES capability for applied aeronautics now, or within the next 10 years. Instead we disinvested in aeronautical research and killed the possibility. We have the literal self-fulfilling prophecy.
It gets worse, much worse. The estimate of 2030 to 2045 is based on the advance of computing hardware continuing unabated for that period. This almost certainty will not happen without a sea change in how computers are made. Moore’s law is dying. By 2020 it will be gone. Without the advances in theory, models, methods and algorithms we will never get there. In other words the study of fluid dynamics on a full aircraft via LES will not yield due to overpowering it with hardware. We need to think, we need to innovate, and we need to invent new ideas to solve this problem. Thankfully, this path is being described by the new NASA Vision, which hopefully will overthrow the stale viewpoint justifying the decline aeronautics.
Even worse than the estimates of the computing power are the assumptions that we will continue to use computers like we do today. Each new generation in computing has brought new ways of using them. New applications and new approaches to problem solving will arise that will render such estimates ridiculous. Ingenuity is not limited to increasing the efficiency of our current approaches, but developing new problem-solving regimes. Beyond the realm of computing are deeper discoveries in knowledge. For example, we are long overdue for meaningful developments in our understanding of turbulence. These will likely come through experiments that will utilize advances in material science, computing, optics and other fields to yield heretofore-impossible diagnostics. We will likely observe things that our present theory cannot explain, which in turn will drive new theory. The entire notion of what LES is may be transformed into something unforeseeable today. In other word, the future will probably look nothing like we think today because we can’t imagine what our fellow man will create. We can, however, believe in our fellow man’s potential to solve seemingly impossible problems,
Another argument is that we don’t need to develop better aeronautics because our aircraft are not changing any more. In fact the aircraft can’t change due to the regulatory environment. The belief is that current work is adequate for the mainstream issues in aircraft design. This might be true. Eventually things will need to change. I have a hard time imagining that in 100 years we will be flying planes that look just like today’s planes. Instead someone will decide to push knowledge forward. They will advance science including aerospace science. Doing so, they will develop new airplanes that will be much better than the current ones. The people who do this will own that future. If it isn’t the USA, then we will all be riding in planes built somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will if we don’t change. The same principles hold for computers, cars, toasters, TVs etc. If we allow ourselves to believe that we can’t changes, can’t do better, we won’t. Someone else who does believe they can do better will invent the future, when they invent the future they will own it, and us.
The last bit of wisdom missing from the whole dialog is the serendipity of finding entirely new applications for computational science. Part of progress is inventing entirely new ways of doing business, new ways of solving problems, and ways of thinking that are completely beyond the imagination currently. Our lack of investment in aerospace helps to assure this won’t happen. Even a casual examination of humanity’s march forward shows the folly of our current approach. Man has continuously created the new way of doing things, combined ideas and technology into new things. In fact, looking from the year 1999 it was unreasonable to assume that one could even begin to understand how things would be done in 2045, and certainly such a dismal outlook. A more defensible and honest assessment would have seen processes and progress that would seem otherworldly from the 1999 perspective including discoveries that would undo our limitations. Imaging that current limitations would hold in 2045 is blindness.
This whole episode with aeronautics is just one cautionary tale, in one field. There are many more examples today where small minded, scarcity based thinking is killing our future.