NASA's decision to slash its funding for aeronautics research should be seen as a warning cry for the US aircraft industry- and as a clarion call for its European counterpart.
The agency was only able to transfer funds from aeronautics research to the Inter-national Space Station because it was allowed to - by lack of industry backing for its commercial transport technology programmes.
The biggest casualty is the High Speed Research (HSR) programme to develop technology for a future supersonic transport. NASA says it cancelled the programme after its industry partner - Boeing - withdrew its support. The original plan was to transfer the funding to other aeronautical projects, but the money has been used instead to shore up the troubled space station.
Why? NASA says that the aeronautical projects were of lower priority than the space station, which speaks volumes about the direction in which the agency is heading. NASA's financial controller has acknowledged that the cuts in aeronautical research funding call into question the role of the US Government in supporting "conventional" aerospace.
Aeronautics' low priority within NASA has several roots. Boeing's financially driven decision to withdraw from the HSR programme is certainly one, although why the companion Advanced Subsonic Technology (AST) effort was terminated at the same time is less clear. The AST programme was looking at design, structures, engines and operations technologies that would have benefited a broad sector of the aerospace community.
Perhaps it was too broad. Certainly it has been replaced in NASA's budget planning by three smaller research programmes, covering aviation system capacity, aviation safety and ultra-efficient engine technology. There is a trend here: all three are tied to concepts that are easy to sell to both the public and industry - saving money, saving lives and saving the environment.
Another root cause of aeronautics' slide down NASA's priority list is the problems the agency faces getting the space station assembled and operational. Presently, those difficulties are driven by the economic collapse in Russiaand the need to set aside additional funds to cover any delays in the delivery of station components and supplies that might result.
But, while Russia's problems might ease in the long term, the station promises to be a significant consumer of NASA funds for years to come. The space shuttle programme's costs have reduced substantially, but operating the vehicle still accounts for almost a quarter of NASA's annual budget.
All this underlines a fact that everyone knows, but NASA tries to play down - it is becoming more and more a space agency, and the first A in its acronym - for Aeronautics - is becoming less and less relevant. The blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the shuttle and station; even the US industry is vocal in predicting that its future growth lies in the direction of space.
NASA could argue that it is simply following the lead of the industry it serves, by putting more money into programmes like Future-X, to support development of advanced space transportation technologies. It does argue that aeronautics and space technology are merging in areas such as design, materials and engines, as its researchers pursue structures and propulsion systems that are equally applicable to hypersonic aircraft and resuable launchers.
These arguments risk disenfranchisement of the wider US aeronautics community, which can reasonably expect to benefit as Boeing does from NASA support. If the agency is going to make funding decisions based solely on the level of interest from industry giants, then US aviation leadership could suffer.
That could provide an opportunity for Europe to redress the imbalance in government support for aerospace research. A reduced NASA budget for aeronautics is easier for Europe to match, ending the long debate over hidden subsidies for commercial aircraft development. The narrow focus of NASA's surviving aeronautics effort also provides a window of opportunity for Europe to take the lead in "conventional" aerospace.
Source: Flight International