August 30, 2013
When the sector you serve is doing very nicely, thank you, it is hard to sound an alarm about the future. And when lawmakers see bulging order books stretching years-out for commercial aircraft and engine manufacturers, it is hard to make the case for government funding of research that will not produce results for a decade or more.
So NASA’s unveiling of a new strategy for aeronautics research is a bold and welcome move from a bureaucratic agency that often seems to have lost its sense of direction (see page 21). The aeronautics reset is based on the fundamental assumption that U.S. leadership in civil aviation will be at risk in as little as 20 years unless the nation acts to keep the pipeline of new technologies flowing. The revitalization plan—spearheaded by the associate administrator for aeronautics, Jaiwon Shin—was inspired by the story of Kodak, which through complacency and lack of vision saw its domination of the photographic film and camera market wiped out by digital imaging and smartphones.
Based on a comprehensive analysis, NASA is refocusing its aeronautics research on six thrusts shaped to help industry respond to three global mega-drivers: demand for mobility from the growing middle classes of China and India; energy and climate issues challenging the affordability and sustainability of aviation; and technology advances in information, communication and automation that already are transforming other sectors more agile than aerospace.
This is hardly new. These same factors have underpinned Airbus’s and Boeing’s bullish forecasts for aircraft demand over the next 20 years, and the international airline community’s drive to limit emissions and their costs. But those factors are also seen by nations that have made development of an aviation industry a national priority. Unlike the U.S., those countries do not have skeptical lawmakers looking to cut government R&D spending. Nor do they have the burden of a massive and aging infrastructure that must be modernized.
Global economic growth has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, and with it, the demand for aircraft, increasing the incentives for countries to manufacture locally. And where manufacturing goes, R&D follows, as the experience gained developing one product leads inevitably to the next—and better—generation. What NASA really fears is this looming global competition in R&D, which could pit its roughly 2,000 aeronautics researchers against perhaps 10 times as many government engineers in China alone.
At a recent conference on propulsion, a senior strategist for engine manufacturer General Electric warned that if the U.S. government was not willing to invest in aviation R&D, GE as a global company would go where funding is available. Such statements are a threat to NASA’s preeminence in aeronautics, and should be a wake-up call to Congress. In 1998, NASA devoted the equivalent of $1.7 billion to aeronautics research. This year, it will spend a third of that, just $560 million. That is shameful. The good news is that even that small amount is generating outsized returns in maturing key technologies such as laminar flow control, quiet flaps and landing gear, and ultra-high-bypass engines.
Surprisingly, at least for those of us close to the industry, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Aviation 2013 Conference last month that he gets less pressure from the entire aviation community than he does from a single congressman with a pet space project. Perhaps that is a sign of complacency. After all, times are good. Boeing Commercial Airplanes recorded nearly $5 billion in operating profits last year.
The situation is not peculiar to the U.S. Europeans in the industry speak of the poor public image of aviation there, with the perception that it damages the environment and does little to benefit society. That makes it more difficult to persuade regulators and politicians to remove unwarranted barriers to the industry’s growth.
Bolden wants the U.S. aviation community to speak up and defend aviation’s profound and myriad contributions to economic activity and aerospace’s role in creating high-paying jobs and powering billions in exports.
But unless Congress is convinced of aviation’s benefits—and understands that U.S. leadership really does face challengers—NASA will find it hard to protect aeronautics research from cuts, let alone increase funding. While there is room to quibble about some elements of NASA’s new vision—if there will ever be a market for low-boom supersonic transports, or on-demand air taxis—the strategy is encompassing enough to be embraced and supported by industry.