Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, Jaiwon Shin emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 23, and in 1989, he joined NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, where he served most recently as Chief of the Aeronautics Projects Office. In January 2008, he was named Associate Administrator of the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

NASA Tech Briefs: Dr. Shin, what are some of the primary responsibilities you have as the Associate Administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate?

Dr. Jaiwon Shin: I think my major role is supporting the Administrator for setting the direction for aeronautics R&D that NASA has put through. In order to do that more effectively, I have to work with many internal and external key stakeholders and partners to identify national challenges correctly and formulate NASA Aeronautics’ top-level goals and objectives accordingly to address those national challenges. And certainly I have a lot of duties to advocate NASA’s aeronautics program, and working with our domestic and international partners to form strategic partnerships. I view some of those as my primary responsibilities.

NTB: After years of limited or no funding increases, last year the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate received a $60 million budget increase. To what do you attribute this positive development?

Dr. Shin: That was a really good outcome that we all appreciated. I think it started from the consistent research direction that we were able to hang onto since 2006, not changing the main research direction so often, like every year-and-a-half or two years. We started producing a lot of really good, solid research results. In turn, what that did, in my view, is we started getting back our technological credibility. That came out of the excellent work we actually conducted, but also from maintaining partnerships with government agencies and the external community.

I think that building up technical credibility was the key and so many people who worked on NASA aeronautics programs all deserve a lot of credit. And then I emphasized to all of our people that we have to address the right national challenges. Not the ones that we like to work on, but ones that are really the groundswell national challenges that the community is really calling for. In this case it is mitigation of environmental impact due to aviation, and that is truly a national agenda in the aviation community, who are rallying behind it.

I also emphasized that we have to build technically credible content, so that’s where we start. We went through almost a year long explanation and vetting with personnel internal and external to NASA, and although they were laborious efforts, we took a very systematic and methodical approach to painstakingly explaining what this technical project will do for the nation. And I emphasize for our folks that if we do the correct technical work and addressing the right national challenge, then money will follow.

I encouraged the people that you’ve got to trust the system. If we do the right thing, there will be enough people out there who see the value and will want to fund us.

NTB: Much of that new money has been allocated to something called the Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project. Tell us about that project and what NASA hopes to accomplish with it.

Dr. Shin: We have been working in both aircraft systems and operational aspects to reduce the impact of environmental aspects from aviation, and we have been doing that for many years. Out of those research activities a lot of promising concepts and technologies started emerging. With ERA – Environmentally Responsible Aviation – what we are trying to do is select the most promising technologies and combine them, meaning integrate them, and test them out to assess their integrated benefits and try to find out what is feasible as an integrated system. And we have to test these integrated technologies in a relevant environment. To us, the relevant environment means, many times, flight, but it doesn’t necessarily mean flight all the way. It could be fairly sophisticated integrated testing on the ground, or it could be a combination of ground test and some flight test. The point is the integration and assessing of benefits in the relevant environment.

So, to be more specific, we are going to work on technologies such as revolutionary new configurations, meaning that the configuration of the aircraft now will look different – completely different – from the tube and wing configuration that mostly all large transport aircraft adhere to now. We envision aircraft configurations something like a flying wing, looking somewhat similar to a flying wing. We call it a hybrid wing body, but that is a configuration that is very promising to reduce emissions and noise dramatically from the current configurations. So we’re going to work on that kind of revolutionary configuration.

We’re also working on ultra-high bypass ratio engines and even unducted fan engines, so those engines also will be very much advanced and different from today’s aircraft engine systems. Also fuel efficient and ultra-low emissions combustors to, again, reduce emissions. And lighter materials and structures to reduce fuel consumption, which will directly contribute to a reduction in CO2 emissions.

So, we have a number of promising technologies, but sometimes these promising technologies compete against each other. As an example, if you want to reduce noise, you want to do some treatment to the inlet and nozzles of the engine, but then the measures you are taking to reduce noise may actually hamper the performance of the engine. So, the key point is to simultaneously reduce emissions and noise while maintaining the performance of the aircraft. That’s why we need to put the most promising technologies from various parts of the aircraft, integrate them, and assess the intended integrated benefits, how much is feasible, and what areas need to be adjusted, and so on and so forth. That’s kind of, in a nutshell, what we are trying to do.

NTB: Another program high on your directorate’s priority list is the Next generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen for short. Tell us about NextGen.

Dr. Shin: Yes, that is another hugely challenging area for the country. I’m sure I don’t need to belabor this point to you, and most of your readers will recognize this as a national challenge.

NTB: Anyone who travels by air will recognize it, correct?

Dr. Shin: Yes, that’s it exactly. Currently our national air space system and the way to handle the traffic is almost at the choking point, based on the current surveillance system and air traffic management procedures and processes. That’s why during the holiday seasons or during the summertime when a lot of disruptive weather happens around the country, you end up getting a lot of delays and cancellations of flights.

So, a kind of interesting outlook is the community thinks that air traffic volume will grow two to three times the present volume in the next twenty or twenty-five years. By the 2025 timeframe, it is not out of the realm of possibility that air traffic volume could be doubled from, perhaps, the level of 2000, right before 9-11. How to handle this capacity is a huge issue, but at the same time environmental impact consideration is growing rapidly. In view of that, concern is getting even bigger so some countries, European countries, are starting to regulate the aviation industry simply because of emissions and noise considerations. And safety is also going to be a big challenge because currently the aviation industry has been enjoying almost a mind-boggling level of safety. At least in the U.S. and developed countries worldwide, air transportation is the safest mode of transportation.

But when future systems become more and more automated and highly diverse, we envision that new aircraft capabilities will come in like UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles – and perhaps even supersonic airplanes. Also, perhaps, a large civil tilt rotor, like a V-22 Osprey aircraft, but for civil use. So, some of these new capabilities may be introduced and a lot of automation will happen, both on the aircraft systems and also ground tracking systems, and navigation surveillance technologies will advance.

So when you put all these potentials together, the incremental improvement will not be able to address the future challenges. So NextGen was conceived to create a revolutionary change, a transformation in air transportation systems, and technology is a big piece of it. Certainly policy and procedures and all those things are still required to support new systems, but technology is the centerpiece of this revolution. That’s why NASA is heavily involved in developing next-generation technologies.

NTB: In 2009 you testified before members of congress regarding NASA’s research efforts in the area of powering future aircraft with second and third generation biofuels. How is that research going and how far off in the future do you envision achieving that goal?

Dr. Shin: I certainly believe biofuels hold a lot of promise. Several airlines have already flown using conventional jet fuel mixed with some type of biofuels, so it’s already been demonstrated that biofuels are very legitimate and viable alternatives to the fossil fuels that are propelling aircraft at the moment.

The challenges, actually, are numerous for biofuels, as you might expect. Really cost-effective manufacturing is a huge challenge. I don’t want to go into all of the details, but the land mass required to grow enough quantity…you’ve heard all the stories including the grain and stuff that we need, and water resources, and so on and so forth. But cost-effective manufacturing and enough quantity and all that are the important challenges.

From our perspective, another big challenge is whether there will be any long-term impact to aircraft systems, such as combustors and the fuel system and so on. We have been hearing already that there is some contamination in the pipeline for biofuels, certainly not just aviation applications but for other applications, so it is important that we understand the long-term impact of biofuels to aircraft systems.

So, as you pointed out, NASA has been working with many partners to stay engaged with the proper progress, and also to make appropriate contributions. For the time being we have a very modest investment in biofuels research and trying to figure out what NASA’s unique contribution should be.

To this day our partners are telling us that they rely on us to conduct research in figuring out the long-term impacts to the aircraft systems and also developing technologies that will be fuel flexible. What I mean by that is future combustors – 20 or 30 years out – they may actually work on 100 percent biofuels, so the technology we’re developing for future combustors needs to be able to handle various types of fuels. Again, with a very modest amount of investment to start with, we’ve been working in this area for 2 – 3 years now.

I don’t know what the future will be in this area. Certainly NASA Aeronautics is not the agency that would be able to make anything comparable to the investment that the DOE (Department of Energy) or DOD (Department of Defense) are making in the biofuel area. So we will continue to coordinate and collaborate with these mainstream agencies and also industry, and make appropriate contributions.

NTB: You co-chaired a National Science and Technology Council of Aeronautics Science and Technology sub-committee, a group made up of the federal departments and agencies that fund aeronautics related research. In 2006 they wrote this country’s first presidential policy governing aeronautics research and development. Considering how long NASA has been in this business, what do you think took so long to establish such a policy, and what governed aeronautics R&D before this policy was instituted?

Dr. Shin: I actually don’t know why such a policy has not been developed earlier. I don’t have that historical perspective. But I do know the current policy and plan have helped quite a bit, actually very significantly, all government departments and agencies that have any role in conducting or funding and fostering aeronautics R&D.

I think the benefit of having a policy and plan certainly has been bringing these various departments and agencies together to coordinate and collaborate in working on the most important problems. So policy, as you might have imagined, is a very high-level, only a few pages long, document. Policy sets the tone and it is a very important document, but to us at the working level, what’s more beneficial is the plan itself, because the plan has actual goals and objectives in various areas such as mobility, national security, safety, and energy and environment. Those are some of the areas that we focus on in the policy and plan.

These national level goals and objectives are certainly going to be helpful to provide us with coordination and collaboration points, and we just updated the national R&D plan’s goals and objectives this year. The plan is supposed to be updated every two years and this was the year for it to be updated, so we are just completing that. So I think having these new policy and plans has been very helpful for the aeronautics community.

NTB: You spent a good part of your career working at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and now you’re at Headquarters in Washington, DC. How different is it working in that environment compared to working at one of the centers like Glenn? Does it require a different skill set, or did you find it to be an easy transition?

Dr. Shin: Interesting question. I think what I learned at Glenn in leadership, program management, organizational excellence, and all those things, was very helpful and I certainly use the skills that I acquired and the lessons I learned while I was working at Glenn even in the current position that I have at Headquarters. I think those were really valuable lessons and experiences that I bring to Headquarters. Also, the perspective of how centers work and the issues and difficulties that we go through at the center level, I think, are also very valuable for doing my daily job.

I certainly wouldn’t call it an easy transition, and the reason I’m saying that it wasn’t very easy is not because I felt that I didn’t have the right skills. It was mostly the different surroundings and different setting at the national level scene here. There are so many competing interests, and individually all are very legitimate and have the right rationale, but when you put them together many of them are competing against each other so how do you harmonize those competing interests with the present budget? How do you prioritize and set the right direction? That is a different kind of challenge, and certainly the skills and experience that I acquired working at Glenn helped me quite a bit, but I had to work pretty hard to do the right things in that environment.

Another aspect that made the transition interesting was the pace and intensity of the work at Headquarters. I’m not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that working at a NASA center was a breeze, but working at Headquarters is intense. That was kind of an eye opening experience for me

Again, I wouldn’t call it a very easy transition, but it was very rewarding because I have always enjoyed working with the big picture and also the sense of making a contribution at the national level is really precious. That is a rewarding experience. I encourage everyone who has any desire to make an impact at the national level that I think working at Headquarters could be very rewarding.

NTB: Final question. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing NASA and America’s space program during the next decade?

Dr. Shin: Because of my position, I don’t think I’m in an appropriate position to comment on, really, anything detailed about the space program. But for the agency I am very optimistic that I think what I’m hearing is that President Obama is very supportive of human space flight and NASA as an agency. He is very supportive, and he is very big on innovation and technological superiority in the world. Those are very relevant agendas for NASA, and I think as a member of the federal government we can contribute a lot in terms of innovation and technological superiority. So I am very hopeful that our future as a member of the executive branch in the federal government is bright, and I know I have worked with many, many NASA people over my 20-plus years, so this is based on my personal experience, not theory or conjecture. I know we have so many talented, committed, good people that will carry out the president’s space policy with the utmost level of excellence and integrity in the coming years, so I am very hopeful that support from the White House will continue and we will be doing a lot of exciting things.

For more information, contact Dr. Jaiwon Shin at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To download this interview as a podcast, click here .

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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