Glide Path to Irrelevance: Federal Funding for Aeronautics; Aeronautics within NASA Is Too Important to Neglect in Favor of Space. but That Is Just What the Federal Government Is Doing

By Watkins, Todd; Schriesheim, Alan et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Glide Path to Irrelevance: Federal Funding for Aeronautics; Aeronautics within NASA Is Too Important to Neglect in Favor of Space. but That Is Just What the Federal Government Is Doing


Watkins, Todd, Schriesheim, Alan, Merrill, Stephen, Issues in Science and Technology


The nation's 100-year preeminence in aviation is in serious jeopardy. So, too, are the medium- and long-term health and safety of the U.S. air transportation system. The peril stems from a lack of national consensus about the federal government's role in civilian aviation generally and about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) role in aviation technology development in particular. Aeronautics--the first "A" in NASA--is now vastly overshadowed in resources, managerial attention, and political support by the agency's principal mission of space exploration and discovery. Indeed, most people have no idea that NASA is the leading, and essentially the only, agency that is organizationally and technically capable of supporting the nation's leadership in air transportation, air safety, and aircraft manufacturing.

The aeronautics community supports an expansive public R & D program, with NASA playing a lead role. But during the past seven or eight years, successive administrations and Congresses have reduced NASA's aeronautics budget without articulating how the program should be scaled back. In these circumstances, NASA has tried to maintain a sprawling program by spreading diminishing resources across existing research establishments and many objectives and projects--too many to ensure their effectiveness and the application of their results.

With its plans to return humans to the Moon and eventually send them to Mars, the Bush administration has added to the problem by further reducing the aeronautics budget. The budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2006 and succeeding years anticipates a 50% reduction in NASA's aeronautics R & D spending and personnel by 2010. The current NASA management understands that such resources will not support an expansive program and proposes to refocus efforts on fundamental research, avoiding costly demonstration projects. That may appear to be a reasonable strategy given the current outlook for funding, but it risks losing the support of industry stakeholders and other intended users of NASA-developed technologies. They operate in a risk-averse environment and often depend on outside suppliers to deliver well-proven technologies. This is especially the case in public goods research, such as safe, efficient air-traffic management and environmentally benign aviation operations, in which the argument for NASA involvement is strongest. Thus, with either its previous peanut-butter-spreading approach or its current fundamental research focus, we believe that the agency is on a glide path progressively leading to the irrelevance of the first A in NASA.

The administration's 2006 budget proposal exposed the lack of agreement between the government and the aeronautics community about the federal government's role in aeronautics. NASA's former associate administrator, Victor Lebacqz, acknowledged as much in defending the president's budget request before the House Science Committee. He said that there currently are two contending points of view. One point of view, reflected in a host of remarkably consistent blue-ribbon commissions and national panel reports, is that the aviation sector is critically important to national welfare and merits government support to ensure future economic growth and national competitiveness. This view implies an expansive public and private R & D program. The other view, reflected in the administration's budget submission, is that the aviation industry is approaching maturity, with aviation becoming something of a commodity, and that the government can therefore retrench and leave technology development to the private sector. Lebacqz neglected to mention what in our view is the most compelling case for reinvigorating national investment in aerospace technologies: clear public-good objectives--mobility, safety, and environmental protection--served by NASA's R & D involvement.

At any rate, the proposed retrenchment had a galvanizing effect. …

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