The Kindest Cut

If we’re going to cut NASA funding, let’s make it meaningful.

Air & Space Magazine

Everywhere I go, it seems, my friends and colleagues in the aerospace community are depressed. NASA's budget is shrinking and military spending is flat. They talk as though the world they know is ending and wonder about the future of aerospace.

In fact, smaller budgets could be the best thing to happen to aerospace in some time. But rather than just nibbling at the edges, the Deficit Hawks of Congress need to make the kinds of budget cuts that kill programs and close offices. Such deep cuts would not only help reduce the federal budget deficit; in the long run, they might even be a net benefit for U.S. space technology.

This may seem like an example of "voodoo economics"--spend less, get more--but there is a good amount of reasoning and evidence to support it. In reality, some of the most important innovations in aerospace have occurred during periods when spending on research and development was flat or even falling: Cockpit instrumentation in the 1930s is one example; satellite navigation in the 1970s is another.

This is because R&D is relatively cheap. The largest costs of an aerospace project are incurred when the program enters full-scale series production. The early phases--when new technology is actually developed and demonstrated--usually account for only 10 to 15 percent of the total cost of the project. Basic research--combustion science, materials research, developing new software concepts--is even cheaper. R&D requires some money but not a lot.

Indeed, many people might be surprised to learn that NASA--an agency whose main mission is supposedly research and development--spends only $9.5 billion of its current $14.2 billion annual budget on R&D. The rest, which even the government does not classify as R&D, is spent on operations, maintaining the space shuttle, administration, and infrastructure.

So it's clear we can support an aggressive R&D effort even while we trim the budget. Yet one could take the argument a step further. In the long run, cutbacks in space programs could actually accelerate the state of the art.

Giant steps in technology--the kinds of leaps that aerospace saw in the 1950s with the development of jet propulsion and rocket systems--require at least two conditions. One is that there need to be good ideas waiting to be exploited, as was the case just after World War II, when the aerospace community could easily see the potential of jet engines and long-range missiles. The second is that innovative people need to have a clear field on which to run. Someone needs to tame the research bureaucracy, which squelches radical innovation, or better yet, the field needs to be so new that bureaucracies have not yet had a chance to take root.

Left to their own devices, bureaucracies--and make no mistake, the government's aerospace community is a collection of bureaucracies--keep to a steady, predictable course. Indeed, this is why we like big, staid bureaucracies to be in charge of things like airline safety, for which reliability is all-important. The Federal Aviation Administration may use computer technology that is 20 years behind the times, but you don't see too many airliner crashes. The FAA is rigid, inefficient, and uncompromising, and people who fly a lot should like it that way.

Alas, once a bureaucracy has been around for a while, often nothing short of an explosive charge can get it to change course. This may be okay in the case of the FAA, but it can be disastrous if an organization needs to be flexible and innovative, as aerospace R&D requires.

This, at least in part, may explain why innovation in aerospace research and development--space technology in particular--has been slowing down.

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