To most Americans, NASA is synonymous with one thing: space exploration.
It’s a misperception that could very well cost America its leadership role in aviation research and technology.
“Most people have no idea that NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Agency—is essentially the only agency in America capable of supporting our country’s leadership in air transportation, air safety and aircraft manufacturing,” says Todd Watkins, associate professor of economics.
He should know. As a member of the National Research Council’s Committee on Innovation Models for Aerospace Technologies, Watkins and his colleagues assess aeronautical research and development initiatives in the U.S. What they found was investment in aviation technology and research, long the cornerstone of America’s economic engine, is being drastically reduced.
“There is a stunning neglect of national interests in the future of aeronautical technology and innovation,” says Watkins. “Aeronautics—the first A in NASA—is largely hidden from public view. It’s been structurally, financially, and politically buried in what has essentially become a space agency on a mission to Mars.”
That finding was outlined by Watkins in “Glide Path to Irrelevance: Federal Funding for Aeronautics,” an article published this September in The National Academies journal Issues in Science and Technology
Alan Schriesheim, director emeritus of the Argonne National Laboratory, and Stephen Merrill, executive director of The National Academies’ Board on Science, Technology and Economic Policy—each of whom also sit on the National Research Council committee—co-authored the article.
A shift in priorities
The drastic decline of federal funding for aeronautics is a result of a shift of national priorities. According to the committee, the Bush administration’s latest budget request would further reduce NASA’s aeronautics budget to less than half what it was in the mid-1990s.
In fact, NASA will spend roughly the same amount of money on research and development as several multinational aerospace firms spend every week
“The federal government’s longstanding role in maintaining U.S. preeminence in aviation and the safety and efficiency of the air transportation system is in serious jeopardy,” Watkins and his co-authors wrote. “Why? Congress and the Administration don’t agree about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) role in aviation technology development.”
It’s a concern that has many aviation proponents alarmed. The House Committee on Science’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics has held two hearings in the past three months about the issue.
“At these funding levels, NASA simply cannot come close to addressing such national concerns as our strained air transportation system, the fierce international competition in the aircraft market, and threatening environmental challenges,” Watkins said.