NASA’s first A is for Aeronautics and don’t forget it!

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Published on: September 8, 2012

We should never forget that the first A in NASA stands for Aeronautics, and that research into all things aviation is something NASA and its predecessor organization the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – the NACA, not NACKA, but the N.A.C.A. – has been doing for nearly 100 years.

I just spent the past two weeks visiting NASA’s aeronautical field centers in California, Ohio and Virginia and got a first-hand taste of just some of the things each of these centers are working on.

My first stop was the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where I talked with folks who are working on making it possible for future supersonic airliners to fly overhead in such a way that you don’t hear an annoying sonic boom, as well folks who are among those at NASA who are coordinating the agency’s role in determining how best to operate civilian remotely-piloted vehicles within our national airspace system.

I then dropped in at the Ames Research Center just south of San Francisco and reviewed some of the ways NASA is working with the FAA to help get airline passengers from their departure gate at the airport to their arrival gate at the next airport more efficiently, and in ways that will save the airlines money in fuel costs, which could help reduce ticket prices – or at least help ticket prices from rising as quickly.

I travelled on to Ohio to the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and learned of NASA’s ongoing efforts to examine the use of alternate fuels in jet engines that are more environmentally friendly, as well as work they are doing to develop new ceramic materials and coatings to make jet engines lighter and more efficient in the way they operate, also with an eye toward reducing fuel costs.

And then I wrapped up my whirlwind tour with a stop at Langley Research Center near Norfolk, Virginia. Langley is the Mother Center from which all other NASA centers and our space program (in the form of the Space Task Group) was born, and where both aviation and space research continues in earnest.

At Langley I saw how NASA is working with Boeing and others on a new way to literally stitch together layers of composite materials and create huge, lightweight and super strong structures that could be made into flaps, wings or even entire aircraft – again, with the idea of making airplanes safer and more fuel efficient.

I even talked with a very engaging and enthusiastic researcher who has a team working on ways to keep the bug guts from insects that smash into the leading edge of a wing from accumulating and disrupting the smooth flow of air over the wing, which of course is necessary for generating lift.

I think anyone who lives here on the Space Coast and drives on the freeway during love bug season can appreciate some of the challenges and benefits there.

Also at Langley, and really at all of NASA’s aeronautical centers, I was reminded of the incredible research tools the agency has available to it in the form of its laboratories, test rigs, wind tunnels and the people who do the hard work within budgets that are tight to say the least.

You know, for all the time we spend talking, and whining, about how our space program never has enough money – and count me among them as I agree that our national investment in space should be much greater than it is now – at least the space side of NASA in 2012 had close to $18 billion to work with.

You might be surprised to learn, perhaps even shocked, that out of all those quote-unquote “billions of dollars” in NASA’s budget, the amount the agency is allowed by the President and Congress to spend on aeronautics research is barely $600 million. That’s right, $600 million. With an M.

Think of it this way: NASA Aeronautics is 25 percent of the agency’s acronym, but gets barely 3 percent of the funding.

Now I have proudly declared many times being a space cadet since I was a young boy growing up in Minnesota. But I also have been a propeller head just as long. In fact I used to draw pictures of airplanes on all of my homework, have probably put together more models of airplanes than spaceships, and I even took my first flight lesson before I got my driver’s license.

And of course, I have an aviation business degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

For the past four years, as part of the consulting work I do through my company MILA Solutions, I have been writing about aeronautics for NASA and I have come to know these aviation-minded folks at NASA and their work as well as my friends on the space side of the house.

And I can tell you this: given the amount of money NASA aeronautics is allotted each year, these folks are producing for our nation far more bang for the buck than I think anyone realizes or could possibly appreciate. I dare say that on a dollar for dollar basis, our return on investment in aviation research with NASA is orders of magnitude greater than anything we see coming from our space program.

You’d think after 100 years of flight we know everything there is to know about aviation, but you’d be wrong. True, our aeronautical technology and aviation system is second to none, but there’s still so much more to learn and still so many ways to make all aspects of flying through this planet’s atmosphere a safer, more efficient and less costly experience for all of us.

Like our space program, NASA’s aeronautics research deserves more fiscal attention from our nation’s leaders, and more awareness and appreciation from the flying public.

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