NASA’s First ‘A’ is Still Important to U.S. Economy

As House and Senate negotiators hammer out the details of NASA funding in conference, they will make major decisions about an area we can no longer afford to shortchange aeronautics research and development. Since its days as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been the world leader in aeronautics research. A quick look to the sky would likely reveal the direct impact of NASA advances on aircraft, from environmental improvements to propulsion technology, and many other enhancements. Through its consistent development and demonstration of next-generation aviation concepts, no agency has captured our nation’s imagination and motivated new engineers and scientists as frequently and as powerfully as NASA. The health of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is critical to the continued growth of the U.S. aeronautics industry and the future of our nation’s airspace system. Unfortunately, federal budgets over the past 10 years severely cut funding for these important parts of NASA’s mission, and more cuts are possible. For example, the budget for the directorate is projected to fall to just $717.6 million by 2010. Cuts such as these would paint an even bleaker picture for the future of aeronautics research. These cuts eliminate all funding for research into advanced engine and rotorcraft technology and will put domestic manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage to our foreign counterparts. The impact would take place over a wide swath of the aerospace industry, including the future of air traffic management and the ongoing competition for dominance in the global civil-aviation marketplace. This year looked to be more of the same until forward-thinking members of both the House and Senate increased funding for NASA aeronautics. House Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) added $53.9 million to the bill, while Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and George Allen (R-Va.) secured an extra $7 million in the Senate. The House figure would keep funding at $906.2 million in fiscal year 2006. As called for by the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, a panel on which I served, the federal government recently began an effort to redesign the national airspace system through the multiagency Joint Planning and Development Office. It will be a highly complex, wide-reaching and expensive task, but it is one we must complete to keep up with expected increases in passenger, military and cargo traffic. NASA plays an important role in this project as the agency charged with conducting a large portion of the necessary research. Continued cuts to the aeronautics budget would put the future of the next-generation air-transportation system in jeopardy. Lawmakers have included another commission recommendation establishing a national aeronautics policy and the aerospace industry stands ready to work with leaders to ensure a sensible and comprehensive document. Maintaining U.S. aviation leadership is critical to our national economic health, with the aerospace industry providing our nation’s largest trade surplus ($31 billion in 2004). The federal government must realize the importance of aviation to our national economy by resuming its traditional role of investing in pre-competitive aeronautics research. I urge conferees to embrace the $906.2 million figure for NASA aeronautics research in the 2006 science, state, justice, commerce and related agencies appropriations bill. This funding would allow for additional breakthroughs in areas such as propulsion, air traffic management, sonic-boom reduction, rotorcraft, hypersonics and other technologies while ensuring the availability of critical research facilities as we develop the national aeronautics policy. The aerospace industry also strongly agrees with the House language and supports full funding for the nation’s Vision for Space Exploration. We suggest that level funding for aeronautics research in fiscal year 2006 should not affect the goals and associated funding for exploration that have been established by the administration and endorsed by the House bill. AIA strongly supports the president’s vision to return Americans to the moon and to send them to Mars, but we also believe NASA should continue to fulfill its traditional role in aeronautics research. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be just that.