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Bad Aeronautics News Unfolds

By Keith Cowing
NASA Watch
February 18, 2005

Comments? Send them to [email protected]

Your comments thus far:

NASA FY 06 Budget Memo by Associate Administrator for Aeronautics Research Victor Lebacqz

“I will be coming to your Center as soon as I can to talk about this change. The schedule is for me to be at Glenn Research Center Feb 8, Langley Research Center Feb 10, Dryden Flight Research Center Feb 14, and Ames Research Center Feb 15. Along with your Center management, I will hold an all-hands meeting to answer your questions about the aeronautics programs. I look forward to seeing you.”

The cuts at Langley are long overdue. I worked there as a contractor and saw little activity outside of SES employees peddling flavor-of-the-month initiatives and middle managers scrambling year-round to justify their existence. This is not meant to discredit the engineers and researchers who do excellent work, but I always thought Langley could be just as productive with half its current staff. What’s disheartening is that Langley is taking a hit in spite of the Agency’s overall budget going up. All of NASAshould take a cut.

Incidentally, Vic Lebacqz was one of the most impressive associate administrators I witnessed while working at NASA, the other being Craig Steidle. Lebacqz’ admission that he did not serve Langley well is a testament to his candor and sincerity. And, apparently, proof that his position has little power after all.

Since Vic Legacqz admitted today that he had not served us well in helping to get aeronautics money, I certainly hope he doesn’t get to keep his job.


Mr. Cowing, I find it funny how many people defend there being 10 NASA field centers. As a member of the military, I know a little about trimming infrastructure to reduce costs. I cannot see how some of NASA’s redundancy has survived as long as it has. It may look as though NASA doesn’t have the support of congress, but when it comes to cutting field centers, there is more than enough support. I wish at times that the military had the kind of support that NASA supporters say they don’t have! I just needed to do a little venting. Thank you for the work you do. I have been an avid reader for about 6 years!

Yesterday at Glenn we heard our Center Director’s interpretation of what the new NASA Aeronautics budget would contain. In his words, only “Breakthrough Technology Demonstrators” would be funded, no more fundamental research. I take this to mean full size hardware with mature technology. I would like someone in the Bush administration to explain to the Aerospace engineers here how you can show breakthrough technology WITHOUT doing fundamental research. I really don’t think that this administration gets it. Corporations usually fund the full scale demonstrators in aeronautics, at least in the systems NASA deals with. They depend on NASA to do the legwork and show that it can be done in research and small scale testing first. NASA has been the organization to fund the risky and long term research. It had gotten this country to be number one in aerospace. Not any more. Boeing lost its edge in aircraft production to Airbus. I wonder if engineers in the U.S., including those at NASA in aeronautics, will be job-shopping to Airbus in the future.

Please withhold my name if you release these comments.

I don’t see what the big deal is with Aeronautics. From $906.2M in FY05 to $717.6M in 2010 is about a 20% reduction. This is less of a budget cut than Shuttle saw in the ’90s (I believe that was around 40%) and they didn’t go out of business. I want to know what theUS has to show for all the NASA money spent on aeronautics over the last 4 decades, other than a 50% reduction in market share (i.e. Airbus). Commercial aircraft still fly at Mach 0.8, as they have since the Boeing 707entered commercial servicein 1958 (the same year NACA became NASA). Fuel efficiency has gone up and emissions have gone down, but the drastic reduction in airfares is as much from competition among airlines as it is in advancements in technology in aeronautics. The aeronautics research community needs to reassess itself and start producing some tangible results to justify it’s existence. NACA and NASA helped the fledgling airline industry become established in the 20th century, maybe its time for NASA to start helping the fledgling space travel industry become established in the 21st century. Maybe it’s time for NASA to move on and let the $1 trillionper yearairline industry take care of itself.

Feel free to use my name and Center, I’ve got nothing to hide.

Roger E. Mathews
NASA Kennedy Space Center


Most NASA researchers (at least the ones with some working brain cells) saw this one coming for some time. At Langley, thanks to the utter incompetence of the previous 3 directors, the center saw it’s research potential devastated. Only the “yes sir” got promotions and the key jobs. Performing research and being technically competent was not deemed as key – only managing money was seen as the key to success and the technically incompetent sought that path. Now we reap what the previous management has sewn, we have many technically incompetent managers making the decisions as to how we are to compete for tasks under the new competitive environment. I’m a researcher with 20+ years at LaRC and actually welcome the chance to compete for task for the exploration office. The caveat: we won’t be competitive if we have to carry with us the rest of the parasitic elements that permeate the NASA bureaucracy, in particular the excessive number of senior and bean counting project managers at the center.

Anonymous please


I havebeen a civil servantat LaRC for over 20 years and have witnessed first hand the demise ofthis once-great national asset. If the goal of the “President’s Management Agenda” is to destroy NASA, he is well on his way to accomplishing that goal.

Many ultra-conservatives have been advocating the privatization of NASA for decades. In fact, the Libertarian Partypublicly supports NASA’s privatization asone goalin their agenda. If the President shares that view he should publicly state it and not covertly dismantle NASA from within.

It seems this Administration is using NASA as a “Cash Cow”. The Moon-Mars initiativeis simplycorporate welfare for Boeing, LockMart, and the rest of the military industrial complex who are now the prime contractors for NASA. I doubt Bush came up with this idea on his own. My guess is the people who advocated this project are the same ones who are profiting by it. By the time the next president is elected billions of our tax dollars will have beenwasted on this boondoggle, nothingwill have been accomplished and it will be canceled. Leaving NASA in ruins.

Mark at LaRC


The most important sentence in the memo from Vic Lebacqz is, “In the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, our programs which support public good activities, such as reducing noise, increasing safety, and transforming the national air traffic management system continue to be strongly supported and were maintained in the FY06 budget.” That is good news indeed. It would be better news if he said that all of money that was being taken out of the Vehicle Systems Program was going to those programs. Programs such as the Aviation Safety and Security Program are truly beneficial to the public, and deserve full support. I hope that before the budget is finally passed by Congress, even more money will be given to these worthy programs, particularly if comes from less important (although more glamorous) programs such as those within the Exploration Mission Directorate.

(no name please).


Thanks for the opportunity to vent:

I was drawn to Langley22 years ago as a college studentby the NACA style research that went on at the time. Rather than focusing solely on mega-programs like shuttle/station, there was range of programs from small grants/collaborations with academia, mid-size laboratory projects (i.e. wind tunnels, flight simulators, test stands), and a mix of flight activities, both in-house and with partners at Ames, Dryden, Edwards, Pax, and industry. The goal was to maintain and strengthen national leadership in aerospace technology by nurturing and maturing academic concepts and theories to a point where DoD (this was during the cold war) and industry had reliable data on which to base decisions for production applications. Unless classified, results were freely disseminated and anybody could benefit from them (even Airbus). A fond memory as a Co-op student was conducting a tunnel test on a Burt Rutan inspired configuration and having Mr. Rutan come by to see what wed learned since the flight vehicle he as working on was having stability and control problems. He had a long-standing relationship with this group and would often consult with them. With a few days in the tunnel, we were able to provide comprehensive insight into the S&C issues and a range of solutions, one of which ultimately went on the airplane. The findings were also published in the open literature so that anyone working on similar configurations could anticipate the issue and have solutions. Being able to work with the full range of industry contributorsfrom academic researchers, industry designers, operators, etc. was very exciting, and since NASA was viewed as an national resource and did not compete with academia or industry for contracts and grants, most everyone was very open with their ideas for advancing the state of the art. We served a catalyst to bring the best ideas together and provided a national knowledge base and institutional memory not available elsewhere.

As the number of people at NASA who have an understanding of the NACA role and culture have dwindled (particularly at HQ, but even at the code R centers), the nature of our work has changed over the past 10 years, to were it is almost unrecognizable. The rest of the agency exists largely to build, buy and operate operational hardware (e.g. space shuttles, Mars rovers, planetary probes). This is the dominant, and soon sole culture, of the agency and has shaped the Agencys management tools and expectations in a way that is not compatible with the sort of research that Code R used to do. This is unfortunate, because providing a public technology knowledge base that lowers barriers to entering the industry is probably one of the best investments the nation can make to support the VSE and the aerospace industry. Much of the work that goes on in Aero is also relevant to space (this is one of the reasons the early space age could progress so rapidly), so I dont see it as poor investment if the VSE is in large part,a long-term effort to foster a private space industry not built entirely on government contracts. Unfortunately, the NASA management culture no longer understands the value of basic applied research thats done to methodically explore critical technology areas and producedesign tools and application guidelines. This sort of comprehensive work is far more valuable in the long run than the one-shot technology demonstrations now in vogue. Im curious to see what the new Vehicle Systems Program is looking to accomplish in its “barrier breaking flight demonstrations”. In contrast to the mythology surrounding flight demonstrations, the main value of flight **research** is usually in the broader body of knowledge and tools that are validated through the data or further refined with the benefit of the data. These efforts are neither quick nor easy. For example, the NACA continued to conduct research flights with the X-1 for more than 10 years after breaking the sound barrier. Breaking the barrier the first timewas very exciting (and important to the military brass),but understanding the deeper issues of transonic and supersonic flightsuch that successful designs can be reliably produced is what industry needed. Also, equally important as the X-1 in this regards was the development of the slotted wind tunnel test section that allowed high-quality data to be taken with great efficiency on the ground. If we put all our money into standalone flight demonstrations rather than balanced programs that include the right flight elements, the ROI will be very limited. Also, moving toward competitively awarding everything has vastly reduced the openness of information flow between industry and NASA (and even within NASA), and has virtually destroyed our ability to strategically manage a technology portfolio or national facilities. This is all lost on management as far as I can tell.

It will be interesting to see what sort of wreckage this makes of the code R centers, certainly the lions share of Langley’s support comes from VSP. In the NRC review of the Vehicle Systems Program ( ), they document how the centers were not making some painful decisions that probably needed to be made. That said, they also recognized the value of the competencies that shouldbe supported and hopefully their recommendations to reemphasize those will not be thrown out with the bath water. Its certainly going to be a bumpy ride; Morale could not be lower and if this situation is not handled quickly, strategically and with a prospect of something worth staying for, many of the best people will simply walk away. Frankly, most of the researchers have come to the conclusion that this is the desired outcome.

(Anonymous Please)

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.