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When the sector you serve is doing very nicely, thank you, it is hard to sound an alarm about the future. And when lawmakers see bulging order books stretching years-out for commercial aircraft and engine manufacturers, it is hard to make the case for government funding of research that will not produce results for a decade or more.
So NASA’s unveiling of a new strategy for aeronautics research is a bold and welcome move from a bureaucratic agency that often seems to have lost its sense of direction (see page 21). The aeronautics reset is based on the fundamental assumption that U.S. leadership in civil aviation will be at risk in as little as 20 years unless the nation acts to keep the pipeline of new technologies flowing. The revitalization plan—spearheaded by the associate administrator for aeronautics, Jaiwon Shin—was inspired by the story of Kodak, which through complacency and lack of vision saw its domination of the photographic film and camera market wiped out by digital imaging and smartphones.
Based on a comprehensive analysis, NASA is refocusing its aeronautics research on six thrusts shaped to help industry respond to three global mega-drivers: demand for mobility from the growing middle classes of China and India; energy and climate issues challenging the affordability and sustainability of aviation; and technology advances in information, communication and automation that already are transforming other sectors more agile than aerospace.
This is hardly new. These same factors have underpinned Airbus’s and Boeing’s bullish forecasts for aircraft demand over the next 20 years, and the international airline community’s drive to limit emissions and their costs. But those factors are also seen by nations that have made development of an aviation industry a national priority. Unlike the U.S., those countries do not have skeptical lawmakers looking to cut government R&D spending. Nor do they have the burden of a massive and aging infrastructure that must be modernized.