Aerospace Execs: Strong NASA Exploration Funding Leads to Spinoffs

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WASHINGTON — Funding never-before-attempted space missions and setting hard dates for completing them are key to keeping NASA-developed technology flowing to the private sector, aerospace industry representatives told lawmakers July 12.

“New product development forces the application of advanced technologies into practice, enabling them to be applied to adjacent products in non-space sectors,” John Vilja, vice president of strategy, innovation and growth at rocket engine maker Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, said in written testimony to the U.S. House Science space and technology subcommittee. “A good example of this is in the current push for beyond earth orbit human exploration.”

Vilja cited pilot projects Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is pursuing with industry- and university-funded energy research groups using technology that the Canoga Park, Calif., company developed for liquid-fueled rocket engines. Among them are experiments with the gasification of solid fuels such as coal and biomass — a process some say could allow for greater exploitation of domestic fuel sources, both fossil and renewable.

“While some may wonder if an investment in rocket science has bearing on our daily lives, our work provides concrete evidence of world-leading, game changing capabilities that can directly affect the quality of life for everyone on the planet through our rocket engines,” Vilja said.

According to a charter posted on the space subcommittee’s website, the hearing was intended “to examine the direct economic and societal benefits that investments in NASA have generated and highlight those areas where continued investments could help stimulate the pipeline for future economic growth.”

The subcommittee asked witnesses for ways to maximize public benefit from investments in NASA and the civil space program.

Richard Aubrecht, a vice president at aerospace components and services provider Moog Inc. of Elma, N.Y., said, “Congress should insist NASA have clear statements of objectives to be accomplished with target dates.”

Moog’s work in space exploration, which dates back to NASA’s Mercury astronaut program of the early 1960s, helped propel it into the commercial aviation sector, where it now supplies flight control systems to the likes of Chicago-based Boeing Co., Aubrecht said. But for other companies to emulate that success story, NASA programs must be adequately funded so that work can proceed without interruption, Aubrecht said in written testimony.

Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the subcommittee, picked up on that thread in his opening statements and subsequent questions to witnesses.

Palazzo expressed concern that despite increases in federal research and development funding in the White House’s 2013 budget request, NASA’s portion is “barely keeping pace with inflation.” He cited figures provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Washington-based group that publishes the journal Science, indicating NASA research and development funding would increase by only about 2.2 percent next year compared with 2012 under the White House request.

“How do you reconcile the increased focus on such [research and development] activities at the federal level without commensurate funds requested for NASA specifically to meet this challenge?” Palazzo asked Mason Peck, the space agency’s chief technologist.

Peck, who took over as chief technologist Jan. 3 after Bobby Braun resigned his position to return to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, did not address the difference between NASA and overall federal research and development funding.

He did, however, point out that “of the 4,700 invention disclosures provided by the federal government in 2010, 1,700 came from NASA. So about a third of the total.” The figures, published in 2010, list government inventions dating back to 1976.

Peck also noted that the White House wants to increase the budget for NASA’s Space Technology division, which conducts research independent of the big mission directorates such as Human Exploration and Operations, and Science.

NASA’s $17.7 billion budget request for 2013 includes $700 million for Space Technology, representing an increase of more than $125 million over 2012.  Spending bills produced by the House and Senate this year would provide $633 million and $651 million, respectively, for Space Technology in 2013.