The chairman of a congressional subcommittee examining NASA’s aeronautics spending plan is asking whether deliberate national strategy rather than budget pressure should guide the federal government’s declining investment in civil aviation research and development.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) devoted his first hearing as chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee to the changes NASA proposes to make to its aeronautics research program as part of a broader effort to free up funding for the agency’s new space exploration-driven agenda.

Although NASA was one of the few federal agencies to see an increase in the 2006 budget request the White House sent to Congress in February, the U.S. space agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate would see its budget drop 6 percent to $850 million next year, marking the beginning of a steady decline that would pare NASA aeronautics spending back to about $700 million by 2010.

The cuts are expected to produce a couple of thousand civil servant and contractor layoffs at three NASA field centers heavily involved in aeronautics research and lead to the closure of wind tunnels and other research facilities.

“There is a lot of concern that the investment in aeronautics research and development has been limping along for several years and that there is a lack of national strategy,” Calvert said at the March 16 hearing. “Over the next five years, NASA is proposing to reduce its aeronautics workforce by approximately 2,000 people and to shut down a number of its wind tunnels. The questions I have are: Are these wise decisions for the nation? Should NASA develop a national strategy for aeronautics before these valuable skills are lost? Does NASA have a human capital strategy or are these personnel cuts solely for budget purposes?”

The witnesses picked to testify before the subcommittee said the proposed reductions in aeronautics spending would harm U.S. economic competitiveness and threaten national security. They also said the cuts were driven by budget considerations rather than a coherent vision of what NASA ought to be doing in aeronautics.

The witnesses included several academics, a retired senior aerospace executive and two lawmakers representing district’s whose NASA field centers would be hard hit by the aeronautics cuts.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), a member of the Arms Services Committee whose district includes NASA’s Langley Research Center, told the subcommittee that the proposed cuts would be detrimental to U.S. national security, pointing out that “every aviation asset in the military’s inventory” was designed with NASA’s help.

“Not only have NASA researchers made U.S. military vehicles technologically superior, they have helped determine the capabilities of our enemies by testing and analyzing foreign warplanes for the defense and intelligence communities,” she said. “Without proper funding, this capability will perish and will be exceedingly difficult to restore.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the former Democratic presidential candidate whose Cleveland congressional district is home to NASA’s Glenn Research Center, told the subcommittee that NASA-funded aeronautics research contributes to aviation safety and security, points the way to cleaner and quieter aircraft, produces breakthroughs beneficial to military and civil aviation and helps the U.S. aerospace industry compete in the global marketplace.

“Yet aeronautics research [at NASA] is being attacked from multiple angles,” he said. “If the administration’s vision for the weakening of aeronautics at NASA is realized, we cede aeronautics superiority to Europe.”

Kucinich told his fellow lawmakers that the proposed cuts would mean the loss of 700 NASA jobs from Glenn and 1,100 NASA jobs from Langley.

When Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) put in a brief appearance to challenge Davis and Kucinich to suggest which NASA programs Congress should cut to provide more funding for aeronautics, both declined, saying the needed money should come from outside the agency’s budget.

That opinion was shared by some of the hearing’s other expert witnesses, including John Klineberg, the retired president of Space Systems/Loral who has held a number of senior NASA posts, including director of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Klineberg said during a break in the hearing that he supports NASA’s space exploration vision but that aeronautics research need not suffer as a result of the agency’s new focus.

Under questioning from Calvert, Klineberg called NASA’s proposed aeronautics budget “a disaster” that funds a shrinking program that doesn’t meet the country’s needs “because we haven’t really looked hard at what those aeronautics needs are separately from the budget. I think the program is on the way to becoming irrelevant,” he said.

He told lawmakers that NASA needs to come up with an aeronautics vision the same way it has for space exploration, decide how much to spend and then cordon that money off from cuts to help pay for space exploration. He said he would also like to see NASA have two deputy administrators — one for aeronautics and one for space.

Lawmakers also asked about what the future holds for the more than two-dozen wind tunnels and other major aeronautics test facilities NASA has spread across the country.

Philip Anton, director of the RAND Corporation’s Acquisition and Technology Policy Center, told the subcommittee that 29 of the 31 NASA test facilities serve national needs and that closing any of them would be detrimental. Of the 29, he singled out nine facilities, including hypersonic test facilities at Langley and Glenn and the Ames National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC), that a RAND study determined three years ago would be “very detrimental to close.”

At least one of those nine, the Ames’ 12-Foot High-Reynolds Number Pressure wind tunnel, has already been mothballed. The NFAC facility, meanwhile, could be taken over by the U.S. Air Force if discussions between NASA and the service work out.

Testifying on behalf of NASA was Victor Lebacqz, the agency’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.

Lebacqz said that NASA has made no decisions to close any of its remaining wind tunnels but is evaluating options for the test facilities as part of a so-called zero-based review it expects to complete this summer.

Lebacqz said he agreed with the other witnesses that a national discussion about the future of aeronautics research was probably in order, but it was not up to him as a NASA official to say what the outcome of that discussion should be.

He said NASA has put together a focused but viable program that will tackle some of the nation’s most pressing aeronautics research needs, including improving management of America’s increasingly crowded airspace, mitigating the sonic boom of supersonic aircraft and developing long endurance unmanned aircraft that could be used for scientific observation.

Lebacqz said the proposed reductions were necessary in order for NASA to move out on its new exploration-driven agenda.

“To ensure maximum benefit to the taxpayer, and to embrace the vision for space exploration, we are transforming our investment in aeronautics research in order to more sharply focus our investment on revolutionary, high-risk, ‘barrier breaking’ technologies,” he said.

Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said NASA’s upbeat assessment of its aeronautics program is undermined by what he called the “bleak outlook” for the program.

“We seem to be headed down a path that could result in the loss of a vital national capability if we are not careful.”

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...