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Orlando Sentinel (Florida) February 27, 2005

NASA Cuts Aviation Research For Space

Exploration Gets Priority -- Jobs Will Be Eliminated

By Michael Cabbage, Sentinel Space Editor

CAPE CANAVERAL -- Dreams of Mars, coupled with money problems on Earth, are whittling away the first A in NASA.

Since its origin almost a half-century ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been built around the twin missions of space exploration and aviation research. Aeronautics supporters fear that is changing.

Up to 2,500 jobs are being eliminated. Aeronautics facilities are being mothballed or handed over to other organizations. And some NASA centers will be forced to compete against one another and private companies for projects.

Less than 6 percent of NASA's $16.2 billion budget for 2005 will be spent on aeronautics. Although research funding already has been slashed by almost 60 percent since 1994, even deeper cuts are planned.

"The situation is, we have less money, and we're going to be doing business differently," said Victor Lebacqz, associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA headquarters in Washington. "And what comes out of that is what comes out of that."

Lebacqz and other officials insist NASA remains as committed as ever to innovative aviation research. In recent years, however, the focus has changed from doing revolutionary aircraft design to improving the efficiency, safety and security of the U.S. air-traffic system. Pushing the edge of the envelope increasingly takes a back seat to projects such as reducing noise around airports.

Some NASA managers privately concede that major cuts to aging aeronautics programs are essential to help pay for the White House's costly plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and head on to Mars. Critics contend many aeronautics projects are thinly veiled government jobs programs doing tasks better suited for the private sector.

Not surprisingly, members of Congress and regional news media concerned about two especially hard-hit NASA facilities -- the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. -- don't see it that way.

U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., has vowed to fight for aeronautics funding and is busy recruiting like-minded colleagues.

"We're going to work with others in the Virginia delegation and others who care about aeronautics," Allen said. "I don't care to do this in a way to harm the space program. That's also important to our future and it should not be in competition."

That competition has widespread implications. Ohio and Virginia's losses could indirectly translate into gains for states such as Florida and Texas. The Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center in Houston are two NASA sites expected to increase jobs and spending as space-exploration plans move forward.

The cuts in aeronautics have prompted some to ask whether it's time to split up aviation research among organizations where projects would not have to directly compete against space exploration for money.

"Is there some reason that those facilities couldn't be parked under some other agency or department? No," said John Pike, director of the policy analysis group GlobalSecurity.org. "I could easily imagine that they might get a better hearing if they were somewhere else."

NO NATIONAL POLICY

Many advances in modern jet aircraft and longtime U.S. supremacy in the aviation industry can be traced, in part, to the aeronautics organization that gave birth to NASA.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 to help U.S. companies better compete with Europe. Two years later, the organization founded the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. The lab quickly established itself as one of the most advanced research facilities of its kind.

Two other major NACA centers were added in the 1940s: the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory near San Francisco and an aircraft-engine research facility outside Cleveland that was named the Lewis Research Center in 1948 and renamed after Ohio astronaut John Glenn 51 years later.

During its 43-year life, NACA evolved into one of the premier aeronautical-research organizations in the world. Aviation luminaries such as Orville Wright and Charles Lindbergh sat on NACA's executive committee. NACA researchers achieved breakthroughs in areas that revolutionized aircraft design and wing shapes.

Many of the cutting-edge advances were proven in NACA's state-of-the-art wind tunnels -- giant structures used to study the flow of air around objects and the aerodynamic forces that were created. By the early 1990s, there were 23 major wind tunnels at Langley, six at Glenn and 12 at Ames, including the world's largest.

When Congress created NASA in 1958, lawmakers built the space agency around the NACA facilities and charged the new organization with "improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles." But while presidents since Eisenhower repeatedly outlined specific new goals for space, no similar grand visions were offered for aeronautics.

"There is now a national policy that supports space -- and in particular for NASA, space exploration," said Richard Christiansen, deputy director of the Glenn Research Center. "NASA will continue to move down a path to put more and more of its assets toward the exploration work unless there is a national policy on aeronautics . . .

"All we have in aeronautics today is the legacy from NACA."

NEW PRIORITIES

In recent years, American companies again have faced stiff competition from Europe, which announced a research-investment plan in 2001 aimed at achieving global supremacy for its aviation industry by 2020.

The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry countered in 2002 with suggestions for new priorities in American research. The commission's report recommended that the federal government establish a national aerospace policy, help sustain the country's industrial aerospace base and "significantly increase its investment in basic aerospace research." So far, that hasn't happened.

Today, NASA focuses its aeronautics research on three areas:

Improving the efficiency of the air-transportation system. An example is development of a computer tool for air-traffic controllers that reduces the time airplanes spend in holding patterns waiting to land.

Improving the safety and security of air transportation. An example is a synthetic vision project to help pilots land in extremely low-visibility weather.

The specific design of airplanes to increase their performance. Called the Vehicle Systems Program, this traditional focus of NASA aeronautics helps aircraft fly higher, faster and more efficiently. A current project is designing faster-than-sound airplanes that have quieter sonic booms to reduce noise around airports. Another is developing an unmanned aircraft that flies long distances at high altitudes.

Many experts contend that basic aircraft design has been all but perfected. As a result, work in the first two research areas has increased dramatically during the past decade at the expense of vehicle-system projects.

"Those are areas in which 10 years ago, NASA basically had no work," Lebacqz said. "So those have grown from basically zero to, between the two of them, approximately half of the aeronautics budget."

NASA managers insist the Bush administration's plans for human exploration of the moon and Mars have no impact on the agency's commitment to aeronautics. Skeptics argue the budget figures tell a different story.

Total funding for all aeronautics research at NASA dropped from $1.06 billion in 2004 to $906 million this year. Budget projections through 2010 show an additional 21 percent decline to $718 million.

The money crunch translates into a bleak future for many workers and facilities at former NACA centers such as Langley and Glenn.

Langley is expected to lose up to 1,000 jobs before October 2006. The cuts will affect more than a fourth of the center's 3,900 employees. Glenn would lose more than a third of its 1,850 civil servants, eliminating up to 700 jobs.

The Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California -- a NASA site that depends on aviation research for 75 percent of its work -- is expected to cut about 40 of its 570 government workers. Ames, although no longer classified as an aeronautics center by NASA, also could lose 700 of its 3,000 jobs.

With less work, the agency's test facilities have grown increasingly idle. NASA has shut down about half of its wind tunnels during the past decade. More are targeted for closure within the next year. The agency also is negotiating with the Air Force and other organizations to hand off some installations, including Ames' giant wind tunnel, which currently is closed.

"We have more capacity, if you look at all of the facilities combined, than we can afford," Christiansen said. "It isn't as though there is no work in these facilities. It's just that there's not enough to keep them open full time, all year."

THE FUTURE

Fueling people's fears are lingering rumors that one or more of the old NACA centers could be closed outright. NASA officials say the rumors are groundless. Some observers, however, are questioning whether continued cutbacks will gradually have the same effect by forcing certain centers to wither.

Almost everyone agrees the aviation research being done by NASA is valuable. There is less agreement, however, on whether it makes sense to shift the projects to industry or elsewhere in the federal government. Some experts contend that private companies would be unwilling to tackle some of the high-risk, long-term aeronautics work done by NASA without a guaranteed return on their investment.

"I think there are certain lines of research that government agencies should do," said Kathryn Thornton, an engineering professor at the University of Virginia and former astronaut who serves on the National Research Council's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. "Some of it should go to industry, clearly, but some of the more speculative stuff needs to be led, I think, by government labs."

Which government labs is up for debate.

Advocates of a new approach suggest research on air-traffic control, airplane safety and noise reduction could be put under the direction of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Projects that would enhance airplane security could go be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. And work with possible military applications, such as the program to develop unmanned, high-altitude aircraft, could be moved to the Department of Defense. Others have proposed a new sort of independent NACA.

Members of Congress have indicated they are open to studying such shifts.

"That is something worthy of consideration," Sen. Allen said.

However, some question whether moving aeronautics research from one place to another would result in more money.

"There would still be, in preparing for a president's budget request, a priority decision on how much you are going to put toward aeronautics or space or any other form of research," Christiansen said.

For now, NASA is trying to build partnerships with academia and transform some sites into federally funded research and development centers. Instead of doing work solely for the space agency, they would compete against one another for outside projects. Exactly how that would be done hasn't been decided.

It's also unclear what the impact would be on jobs and facilities.

"The agency is working really hard at trying to sort out which ones of those models make sense for the centers," Lebacqz said. "If they can, for example, go sell their talents to other entities more easily than they can as a civil-service center working for NASA, then that would be a potentially good thing."

Fundamental changes almost certainly are on the horizon as the agency focuses on its new plans for exploring space. Those changes could mean more jobs and another generation of programs at NASA centers such as KSC and Johnson. However, at aging former NACA centers such as Glenn and Langley, the future is filled with uncertainty.

"The question I hear mostly from my colleagues is, `What do we do at this center?' " a Glenn employee said recently in an anonymous survey. "Each center is fighting for its existence, and we fight each other."

CONTACT: Gwyneth K. Shaw of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report from Washington. Michael Cabbage can be reached at 321-639-0522 or mcabbage@orlandosentinel.com.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: In this 1950s photo, a small-scale version of the X-15 plane is observed by a scientist conducting experiments at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. NASA

PHOTO: A collection of wind tunnels is seen in this aerial view at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif. Some tunnels have been closed. NASA


Copyright 2005, Sentinel Communications Co.