Aeronautics, at least for now, appears to be the odd man out. "They want to focus on breakthrough technologies," said Michael Romanowski, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, the industry's leading trade organization. "All turbine [jet] programs that have given benefits are all going away."
As a result of these changes, Langley Director Roy D. Bridges Jr. anticipated a budget drop at his installation, from $616 million in 2005 to about $500 million in 2007. This will mean the loss of 700 civil service jobs, he said, a prospect that he called "very disruptive and upsetting to people." Langley's research into advanced designs and the use of composites in aviation construction could be shut down because of NASA's policy shifts.
The Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is expected to lose 700 more jobs, the majority in aeronautics, by 2006, and at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., Director G. Scott Hubbard offered buyouts last week to 1,400 of 1,470 employees. Glenn is a leader in developing quieter, cleaner, more fuel-efficient jet engines, while Ames has excelled in air traffic management technology.
"If we do nothing, then in fiscal '06 we could have as many as 400 civil servants and an equal number of contractors at risk," Hubbard said in an interview, and the number could increase because NASA employees will be asked to compete in the future for contracts with private industry, academia and even other NASA centers. Lose the bid and the job disappears.
This new plan will effectively tilt authority away from the research centers and toward headquarters, which writes the contracts. Headquarters can thus focus agency activities toward the moon-Mars initiative and away from basic research.
"My impression is that Exploration Systems wants to do more nearer-term, applied [science]," Hubbard said. "And that's what we'll do. It's like when they asked Willie Sutton, 'Why do you rob banks?' Because 'that's where the money is.' " NASA has also decided to require many of its state-of-the-art facilities -- which used to be offered to researchers free -- to pay for themselves, and unless centers can find outside clients, the installations will close. NASA warned in a February internal memo that it planned to get rid of 10 facilities at Langley and four at Glenn, including 10 wind tunnels and Langley's scramjet lab.
Also on the block is the space station's Centrifuge Accommodation Module, an eight-foot-diameter device under construction for NASA at Ames by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The centrifuge is designed to test artificial gravity in space on organisms ranging in size from cells to laboratory rats, offering the first opportunity ever to collect data on the effects of prolonged weightlessness, a serious health hazard for astronauts during long-duration spaceflights such as those envisioned in a future Mars mission.
Hubbard said that there has been no formal decision on the centrifuge, but that the future of the project's parent facility, the Space Station Biological Research Project, is "definitely under discussion." He predicted a decision by the end of April.