NASA Aeronautics Research Funding: The Wrong Direction

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OPED: NASA Aeronautics Research Funding: The Wrong Direction

John W. Douglass is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association of America in Washington.

These are heady times for NASA, with an exciting new mandate to return man to the Moon and keep going all the way to Mars. Elected leaders in Washington are backing up this new challenge with the all-important cash needed to make it a reality. But as the programs involved in those goals start ramping up, there is another branch of the agency that is fighting for its life. And, as has been the case in the past, it’s that first “A” in NASA that is getting the short shrift.

U.S. investment in aeronautics research and development is plummeting, putting our place as the worldwide leader in the industry at serious risk. NASA’s budget for aeronautics research and development is shrinking at an alarming rate, even while leaders increase their overall investment in the agency. The budget blueprint for the next five years calls for cutting the aeronautics budget by almost $200 million, and that is on top of cuts totaling $639.8 million since 1994. This steady starving of the aeronautics research function will have dire consequences for the U.S. aviation industry.

A quick look at the ongoing research programs demonstrates the problem. As a result of dwindling funding, NASA has just four major research projects on tap. Disturbingly, the projects ignore several of the most important aeronautics sectors that hold the most immediate potential for the industry, including conventional turbine engines and rotorcraft.

This is not to say the new space direction for NASA is not welcome. President Bush’s new Moon, Mars and Beyond directive is the most exciting development in exploration in decades and has the potential to recapture the hearts and minds of the American people. What NASA must not do is pit funding for space programs against funding for aeronautics programs — both are vital to our nation’s future and must work together to ensure safe and efficient access to space.

There are several specific examples of how the lack of aeronautics research funding will hurt U.S. interests economically, technologically and even with regard to national security:

Jet engines

In the ’70s and ’80s NASA carried out a turbine improvement program called Energy Efficient Engines (EEE). The program did base-level research on how to make jet engines more efficient to reduce fuel burn. EEE was extremely successful, with U.S. engine makers taking up the base research and turning it into working technology that saved fuel and money and reduced emissions. The results of EEE can be seen on virtually every turbine-powered airplane in the sky today.

A subsequent program called Ultra Efficient Engine Technology was building on the success of EEE, but NASA was forced to cancel the program because of a lack of funding. NASA is now only researching one engine technology — the development of hydrogen fuel-cell powered electric engines. While this is a novel idea that is worth pursuing, it will almost certainly not result in new technology that companies can apply to their airplane propulsion systems in the near or even intermediate term. While NASA is pursuing some research on noise reduction that includes engine noise, as it stands there is no research on conventional engine improvement.

Rotorcraft

In the past 25 years the United States has developed one new medium-lift helicopter. In that time Europe has developed three. There is some research being done in the Defense Department for very near-term, small-level improvements and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking at some advanced technologies that are probably 30 years out. But like conventional turbine engines, rotorcraft technology is being ignored by the administration.

The story is similar in other aeronautics sectors that need research attention, like emissions reduction and materials improvements. As the United States chokes aeronautics research to a trickle the rest of the world is doing the opposite. Europe has an extremely aggressive program in place with even more funding on the way, and the consequences for the United States could be devastating. A lack of research in one particular area means U.S. industry will miss time-sensitive technology windows that can shut it out of vital markets for years. For example, if Europe develops a new ultra-efficient turbine engine and the United States does not, airliner manufacturers will use those engines on planes that will be flying for the next 20-30 years.

Perhaps the most important bottom-line result lies in U.S. aerospace jobs. Tens of thousands of high-paying positions will disappear if we ignore research and development, gutting an industry that has been a cornerstone of the U.S. economy in jobs and positive international trade balance. The stakes could not be higher.

It’s clear to most in the industry that the first “A” in NASA is suffering financially. Our leaders must change course and invest in aeronautics research and development, showing the industry and the world it’s not just a letter on a page.

John W. Douglass is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association of America in Washington.