NASA Aeronautics Research Funding: The Wrong Direction

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 R&D 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’s 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 (E