GAO: NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstrator Moving Forward

This rendering shows the Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept featuring two engines under the wings and one on top of the fuselage (not visible in this image).

NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin are moving toward a preliminary design review this summer of an ambitious plan to build an experimental aircraft that could help make overland supersonic passenger flights possible.

The Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) project is attempting to advance beyond the old Concorde airplanes, which was restricted to supersonic flights over water because of the loud sonic boom they made.

Half of the technologies needed for LBFD were matured under a previous project known as the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) , according to a recent assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Three of LBFD’s five heritage technologies were matured as part of the QueSST effort,” the GAO found. “The project will need to mature the remaining technologies as well as the design tools prior to its preliminary design review in July 2018. Maturing technologies during preliminary design helps reduce risks for systems entering product development.

“Project officials said developing these tools and the shape, which directly impacts the sound produced by the aircraft during supersonic flight, will be the majority of the development work necessary to fly and test the LBFD aircraft,” the report added.  “The project has assessed the design tools to be at a technology readiness level 5, which means the basic components have been integrated and tested in a simulated environment.”

NASA officials said the preliminary cost estimate of at least $390 million will increase once the space agency and Lockheed Martin establish a firm schedule and cost baseline in September 2018. The increase will occur, at least in part, because the preliminary estimate did not include cost and schedule reserves.

The LBFD program is being led by a virtual project office designed to allow personnel from various NASA center to collaborate with each other in more detailed ways.

“The virtual project office model may highlight an organizational structure that could be beneficial for future projects, but it is too soon to tell,” the GAO said. “In addition, officials stated that the project has not decided which NASA center’s policies it will follow, which include the cost and schedule reserve requirements the project will need to meet, among other guidelines.”

The GAO’s assessment of the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator program is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Low Boom Flight Demonstrator

LBFD is a flight demonstration project planned to demonstrate that noise from supersonic flight—sonic boom—can be reduced to acceptable levels, allowing for eventual commercial use of overland supersonic flight paths. Plans include multiple flights beyond fiscal year 2022 to gather community responses to the flights and to create a database to support development of international noise rules for supersonic flight.

Project Summary

The LBFD project entered the preliminary design and technology development phase and established preliminary cost and schedule targets in September 2016. The project expects that its preliminary cost estimate of at least $390 million will increase when it establishes its cost and schedule baseline at project confirmation planned for September 2018, due in part to the estimate not including cost and schedule reserves.

The project began under a concept study effort known as the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) project and was conducted under an existing research contract. NASA selected a post-preliminary design and build contractor in March 2018. Under the QueSST effort, the project matured three of LBFD’s six technologies and will need to mature its remaining three technologies before the project’s preliminary design review. These include one critical technology: the design tools needed to create the aircraft’s outer shape, which is necessary to meet the project’s mission.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The LBFD project entered the preliminary design and technology development phase and established preliminary cost and schedule targets in September 2016. The project’s preliminary cost estimate is $390 million but the project expects the estimate to increase when it establishes a cost and schedule baseline at its confirmation review planned for September 2018. For example, the preliminary cost estimate does not include cost reserves.

Further, according to project officials, the cost estimate will also include an additional $39 million associated with requirements and concept study efforts—that included developing a preliminary design—conducted from 2014 to 2016. Known as the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) project, the effort was conducted under an existing research contract with Lockheed Martin.

Project officials explained that QueSST used funding available each year for concept studies, but that the LBFD project is slated for dedicated funding following its preliminary design review. However, project officials do not plan to include some of the costs associated with the flights to gather community responses because a separate NASA project — the Commercial Supersonic Technology project — will lead this effort.

Credit: GAO

Additionally, the project’s preliminary schedule is in flux. Since the release of the fiscal year 2019 Presidential Budget Request in February 2018, project officials indicated that dates for some key events have changed, and the system acceptance review is now scheduled 5 months later than previously planned.

Design and Technology

In March 2018, NASA selected Lockheed Martin for the post-preliminary design contract for LBFD development. Officials reported that the solicitation did not require that proposals use the preliminary design developed by Lockheed Martin under QueSST. But officials said that part of the evaluation criteria was whether the proposed concept was at a preliminary design review-level of maturity.

Based on the work completed under QueSST, the LBFD project is continuing to mature its one critical technology — the design tools used to create the aircraft’s outer shape, which is necessary to achieve low-boom supersonic flight. Project officials said developing these tools and the shape, which directly impacts the sound produced by the aircraft during supersonic flight, will be the majority of the development work necessary to fly and test the LBFD aircraft. The project has assessed the design tools to be at a technology readiness level 5, which means the basic components have been integrated and tested in a simulated environment.

Three of LBFD’s five heritage technologies were matured as part of the QueSST effort. The project will need to mature the remaining technologies as well as the design tools prior to its preliminary design review in July 2018. Maturing technologies during preliminary design helps reduce risks for systems entering product development.

The fiber optic sensing system, which will measure bend and twist of the wings and stabilizer, and the external vision system, which includes cameras and monitors to provide forward visibility for the pilot—are not yet mature and will require additional development work. The project noted that these two technologies have flown before but not as part of a research aircraft.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

The LBFD project is using a virtual project office and is in the process of making decisions on how to execute the project using this model. The project team includes personnel from many NASA centers, allowing specialized staff in different centers to collaborate more than they would normally.

The virtual project office model may highlight an organizational structure that could be beneficial for future projects, but it is too soon to tell. In addition, officials stated that the project has not decided which NASA center’s policies it will follow, which include the cost and schedule reserve requirements the project will need to meet, among other guidelines.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, LBFD project officials stated that the project is continuing with its formulation activities in fiscal year 2018. These activities will lead to authorization to proceed, with implementation following the confirmation review planned for September 2018, at which time the project will be baselined. Project officials also stated that the information contained in this project assessment reflects the most currently available projections. Project officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.