NTSB Investigators Depend on NASA's Expertise; Space Agency Has Helped Look into Cause of Air Crashes

When an American Airlines jet mysteriously plunged to the ground in New York City five years ago, federal crash investigators quickly turned to NASA for help.


WASHINGTON -- When an American Airlines jet mysteriously plunged to the ground in New York City five years ago, federal crash investigators quickly turned to NASA for help.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has teams of accident investigators but a relatively small budget for technical research. NASA experts picked up the slack, detailing how the jet's tail ripped loose in flight, studying turbulence and simulating what the pilots felt seconds before the crash.

"There are a lot of NASA resources that we go to because ... they have a strong history and an expertise," says Vernon Ellingstad, director of the NTSB's Office of Research and Engineering.

Ellingstad and the NTSB declined to comment on funding at NASA's aviation safety program, but others were quick to criticize the cuts outlined in the president's budget proposal.

The crash of a Comair jet in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 27, which killed 49 people, illustrates the need for NASA's work on safety, said Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the union representing NASA's technical workers.

The Lexington investigation focuses on why the pilots turned onto a darkened, closed runway that was too short for their jet. The NASA department at the Ames Research Center in California that studies such accidents has lost 72 of its 170 researchers since October 2004, according to the union. "This represents an abdication of one of NASA's most solemn responsibilities to the taxpayer," Junemann says.

Aeronautics chief defends work

The first "A" in NASA stands for aeronautics, but the agency has lost well over half its aviation-related funding (in inflation-adjusted numbers) since reaching a peak in 1994. The Bush administration has proposed cutting 20% from what Congress gave the agency this year.

Lisa Porter, an applied physics expert who took over NASA's aeronautics program last October, insists that the agency has enough resources to continue its aviation mission. Part of the safety work at NASA is being moved to other areas of the aeronautics division, she says. The research into human errors will remain "robust," she says, in spite of a plan to cut $46 million, about 31%, from the overall budget for safety research of $148 million.

Porter says the agency reached out to hundreds of aviation firms since last fall in an attempt to better focus on key research areas. Under a reorganization, she is focusing the agency on what she calls "fundamental research." Previously, NASA not only developed new concepts, but demonstrated them in the field.

Some advocates would like the cuts to go even deeper. Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation argue that such spending favors individual companies or industries and should be largely eliminated.

USA TODAY interviewed more than 20 academics, nationally recognized scientists, industry groups, lawmakers and government officials who were critical of the cuts in aeronautics. Several also said that they empathized with Porter and that she had done a good job trying to keep the agency's talented staff together in the face of her shrinking budget.

There is growing anger and impatience that budget pressure from the Iraq war and NASA's new mission to send people to Mars is undercutting what has traditionally been a driver of innovation in one of the USA's strongest industrial sectors.

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