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.
Republican and Democratic members of Congress are attempting to add $100 million to NASA's aviation research budget of $724 million. Lawmakers added money to the president's budget request for NASA aeronautics last year, too.
Advances credited to NASA
Industry groups such as the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and the Aerospace Industries Association say the cuts will harm their members.
Boeing is building a new jet, the 787, that is made mostly of carbon fiber instead of aluminum alloys. That aircraft would not have been possible without the work on such materials performed by NASA, says John Provenzano, director of government affairs at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
In the area of safety, much of what is understood about pilot fatigue, a growing concern at the NTSB, comes from research conducted by NASA.
"Some of the new technology that we will have in 20 years won't be developed if we walk away from the research and development," Provenzano says.
"I don't see much going into the seed corn right now for the future," says Tom Snyder, the former director of Aeronautics and Flight Systems at Ames. "That's quite troubling." Contributions propel aviation into the future
Though mostly known for putting humans into space, NASA has for decades been one of the world's leading sources of technological innovation in aviation. NASA's aeronautics program has faced steady cuts over the past decade and the Bush administration is proposing an additional 20% reduction next year. The agency is credited with developing:
*Winglets. These curved wing tips make aircraft more fuel efficient. Most newly built jets come with winglets, and airlines are adding them to thousands of older jets because they save money.
*Composite materials. Carbon fiber and other non-metals are rapidly replacing aluminum alloys on jets. Composites are lighter and stronger than metal and do not corrode. Some small jets, such as the Adam Aircraft A700 now in development, are being made almost exclusively out of composites. Boeing's new 787 will have a non-metal fuselage.
*Pilot safety training. Every airline pilot in the USA, and many worldwide, is trained in how to avoid deadly errors using methods developed by NASA.
*Computerized aircraft controls. European manufacturer Airbus borrowed heavily from NASA research when it introduced its revolutionary flight-control system that prohibits pilots from making severe maneuvers. Boeing has incorporated similar technology in its latest models.
Source: USA TODAY research
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