By Roxana Tiron - 09/22/05 12:00 AM EDT
As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is making headlines with plans to land on the moon and Mars, industry has been urging the agency and Congress to come down to earth and solve some more immediate problems.
At issue is NASA’s dwindling aeronautics research capability, which some argue is threatening to erode the U.S. aerospace industry’s edge over European competitors.
The aerospace industry is quick to point out that it accounts for a trade surplus — $31 billion in 2004 — which translates into domestic employment.
“We are at a critical point for aeronautics,” said Michael Romanowski, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). “If critical programs are stopped now, the ability to resume those programs in the future” could be lost.
The AIA, which represents both civilian and defense companies, has been lobbying Capitol Hill to increase the money appropriated for NASA’s aeronautics research. In a feat for the industry, House appropriators upped the funds for NASA’s aeronautics research by $74 million, bringing the total to $962 million.
Senate appropriators added only $7 million to the president’s request of $852 million for 2006. Conferees are expected to meet in the coming weeks to decide how much NASA will get.
Romanowski said the AIA is working closely with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the Science, State, Justice and Commerce and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) to make sure that the conference report raises NASA’s research funding.
Over the past 10 years, NASA’s budget has steadily declined from $1.5 billion. This puts advanced engine technologies, supersonics and rotorcraft developments in danger, Romanowski said.
“At the same time, the Europeans invest heavily in research and development,” Romanowski said. The European Union has a program called Vision 2020, “which shows the intent to be leader in aviation, and they have backed it with aggressive research programs,” he explained.
NASA’s fundamental role in aeronautics research has been to develop so-called “pre-competitive technologies,” or basic technologies, for which the industry cannot make a strong business case, or is not well-equipped to undertake, Romanowski said.
NASA, over time, has worked on improved aerodynamics, advanced structural concepts and configuration concepts.
“The industry has been able to take those basic technologies and turn them into innovative products,” he said. A good example is tilt-rotor technology, which is now part of the Air Force’s and Marine Corps’s V-22 program, he added.
The nation’s once-vaunted aeronautics research capability started being dismantled under former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who ended the advanced-subsonic and high-speed-transport programs. They were considered pillars of aeronautics research and development, said Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society.
“Now NASA finds itself unable to fund … the president’s vision for missions to ‘the Moon, Mars and Beyond,’” Flater wrote in a commentary titled “The 2006 NASA Budget Request and Broken Promises.”
The White House Office of Management and Budget has, as a result, directed NASA leadership to find money by eliminating nearly all funding for subsonic aeronautics, hypersonics and ultra-efficient engine technology, according to Flater.
NASA plans to cut jobs at several of its centers, including at Langley Aeronautics Research Center in Virginia.
Meanwhile, the AIA is pushing for the creation of a national aeronautics policy. This policy would detail the importance of aeronautics and “set the framework for moving forward with aeronautics,” Romanowski said. Both the House authorization and appropriations bills include language for the creation of such a policy.
Nevertheless, Romanowski said, he does not think aeronautics should have priority over space exploration. “We think that there is room for a strong space program and strong aerospace program,” he said. “Funds [for aeronautics] should not come at the expense of space. They need to move forward.”
NASA, riddled with problems in its space programs, will have to convince lawmakers it can return to the moon without big budget increases.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said that lunar exploration would cost $104 billion over 13 years. But Congress immediately raised questions about funding for the mission in the face of a potentially $200 billion reconstruction bill in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Some Republicans and Democrats are eyeing NASA’s $16 billion annual budget to try to offset parts of the reconstruction in the hurricane-ravaged areas. But NASA also has strong supporters in Congress, in part because the agency has more than 60,000 employees across the country.
NASA plans to retire its shuttle program by 2010 and replace it with a crew-capsule vehicle. That decision has prompted a flurry of former NASA astronauts to lobby the Hill in favor of companies working on technology related to space exploration.
Former astronauts Franklin Chang-Diaz, Thomas Jones and John Blaha have all registered as consultants for ATK Thiokol Inc., engaging in an education campaign on the design of the next-generation NASA launch vehicles. ATK is a provider of hypersonic scramjet engines, rocket motors for spacecraft launch and orbit transfer.