The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is failing to provide the technological support needed by the U.S. aircraft industry to face down foreign rivals, a draft report by the prestigious National Research Council asserts.
The thick study, a copy of which was provided to The Times, raises serious questions about NASA's role in supporting basic technology that U.S. manufacturers of aircraft, jet engines and components rely on in meeting international competition.
"Clearly, maintenance of U.S. standing in the industry is an imperative national need," says the report, which will be cited in questioning a NASA official at a congressional hearing today. "The current effort of the U.S. government to support basic aeronautics research and technology is inadequate to meet that need."
While NASA aeronautics research conducted at three major centers around the nation obviously is critical to the aircraft industry, "the funding level is well below that needed to be competitive," the report says.
A NASA spokeswoman said the agency had not seen the report and could not comment on it. National Research Council officials said the draft report is subject to change, adding that they could not discuss the findings until the report is formally published in the next month or so.
The dire warning from the research council, a government-chartered private organization, comes amid widespread concern within aeronautics circles that the United States is losing its grip on the commercial aircraft marketplace.
The report notes, for example, that the United States has lost virtually the entire market for commuter aircraft, adding that the market for large transport planes is seriously threatened by rising competition from European firms.
"Clearly, if there is not a reversal here and not an aggressive stand to offer technological assistance, this industry may well face tragic consequences," said Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), whose subcommittee on government activities and transportation will hold a hearing today to examine the U.S. aircraft industry's competitiveness.
Boxer blamed much of the problem on the strategy of the Reagan and Bush administrations, which she says have attempted to steer NASA away from direct technological support to U.S. industry, limiting the agency's role to basic research.
NASA spends about $1 billion annually for aeronautics research, or about 6% of its annual budget. The other 94% goes to space operations and space research--the realm that is the focus of the agency's public image and of recent top-level policy disputes.
The imbalance has irked critics who contend that the agency gives a low priority to the aircraft industry, which employs 700,000 workers nationwide and which earned the nation a $22-billion trade surplus last year.
"That 6% isn't very damn much when you realize how much is at stake here," said Boeing Senior Vice President Ben Cosgrove, the Seattle firm's chief of commercial engineering. "It ought to be more. I really want NASA to get moving on this aeronautics business."
Cosgrove said Boeing would like to see NASA increase funding for wind tunnels, engine technology for supersonic aircraft, noise abatement, sonic boom research and investigations into atmospheric ozone problems associated with supersonic flight.
The 145-page research council report goes into substantial technical depth, making a large number of detailed recommendations for the types of technology that NASA needs to address.
NASA, it says, should start a major development program to ensure that U.S. manufacturers can produce technically superior subsonic jetliners in the next century. It also calls on NASA to increase research on a supersonic jetliner.
With 67% of the world market for large jets last year, U.S. producers still were dominant. But in 1970, the U.S. share was 79%; as recently as 1985 it was 73%.
Last year, Boeing received 58.5% of announced orders for big jets. Europe's Airbus Industrie got 23.7% of the orders, other European firms won another 9% and McDonnell Douglas got 8.6%, according to Boeing. McDonnell Douglas lost 72 previously announced orders, however, leaving the firm with a net loss of aircraft orders last year--one of its worst sales performances ever.
"We are in competition with Europe and Japan, and we are going to get killed because their governments understand the need for shared research and strategy while we do not," Boxer said.
The report forecasts serious repercussions from the loss of U.S. market share in aerospace:
"The perception of a nation's standing in the world affects its ability to lead politically, militarily and economically. Given that the technical sophistication of foreign competitors equals or exceeds that of the U.S. aircraft manufacturers, and given the primary importance that foreign governments ascribe to the global aeronautics industry, the U.S. must take steps to keep pace.
"Although the U.S. has a sizable lead in industry sales," the report adds, "much effort is needed to maintain that lead throughout the next several decades and beyond."