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Ransoming Our Future

We live in a world of short attention spans and instant gratification. Also a world where the basic grease of the United States’ democratic form of government — the requirement for compromise — has been completely cast aside, resulting in the binding, locking and subsequent halt of the gears of government. And because of this our future has been held for ransom on the altar of “my way or the highway” and over the lack of an ability to focus on the future and implement a long-term vision. 

The situation that has developed in the nation’s aerospace industry serves as only one example of the ransoming of America’s future. Research by the Aerospace Industries Association and other organizations shows that the aerospace and defense industry supports 3.5 million jobs, representing some $109.14 billion in salaries — real earnings that are pumped back into our economy as workers go about their daily lives. This makes the research and development (R&D) associated with our industry one of our nation’s leading economic powerhouses. 

As America’s largest manufacturing exporter, the industry contributes 2.23 percent of the gross domestic product. Its workforce is highly skilled, innovative and globally competitive. Only through the continued strength of the industry will we be able to provide current and future opportunities for young people to have secure, high-paying jobs that, at the same time, advance our national and economic security. 

The recent shutdown, the specter of future shutdowns and Congress’ recent history of adopting continuing resolutions instead of actual budgets destabilize the industry as well as hurt the current and future economy and jobs.

Both large and small companies are an important part of America’s aerospace industry. As a matter of fact, small businesses generate a large percentage of jobs in the sector, including 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs and 43 percent of high-tech jobs, and are responsible for 33 percent of the sector’s exports. Recent data reveal that small businesses receive 20 percent of all Department of Defense (DoD) contracts and 35 percent of DoD subcontracts, as well as 18 percent of NASA contracts and 38 percent of NASA subcontracts. These businesses form the backbone of our aerospace and defense industries, with many being the sole suppliers of critical components for major weapon systems, aircraft, spacecraft and satellite systems — components that allow a missile to hit its target, or enable a pump on the international space station to circulate oxygen. 

In our current environment, as politicians bicker about funding the government, businesses that depend on government contracts face the prospect of having to reduce their workforces, scale back output, postpone crucial capital investments or close their doors entirely — threatening future progress and risking a domino effect of failure that leaves our nation technologically bankrupt. Small businesses are especially vulnerable, and as they contract or fail will start a chain reaction that will propagate through the prime contractors and into our national economy.

The reach of the industry extends to our nation’s great research universities as well. It is on campuses across the country where groundbreaking R&D occurs and the next generation of scientists and engineers are trained. Unfortunately, our universities currently trail most of the developed world in terms of support from the government, ranking 22nd according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Without committed, ongoing support, these institutions will be unable to hire and keep top faculty, support deserving students and researchers, and budget for capital and technology expansions of their science and engineering departments. 

The ultimate impact of these trends will be a further erosion of our nation’s scientific and technological capacity, which will negatively impact the size and skills of our science and technology workforce. Continued failure to provide stable funding means we will cede leadership in these areas to economic powers that have the political will to support their industrial base and research efforts with consistent government policy year after year. We owe it to these dedicated researchers and students to support their efforts in a stable, predictable and consistent manner, free from doubt and uncertainty about where the next dollar is coming from as they fulfill their vital roles.

The stability of our aerospace industrial base, and of ongoing R&D efforts in related areas of science and technology, is critical to U.S. national security and to our nation’s economy, infrastructure and future workforce. But that stability is eroded by the rampant uncertainty fueled by never-ending continuing resolutions, political brinkmanship and declining budgets. The trend of repeatedly funding government through continuing resolutions will slowly eat away at the seed corn that has sustained the technological advances that historically fed the economy and advanced the human experience. 

The result of not having a coherent and stable funding policy for aerospace, defense and R&D funding may be invisible initially, but in five to seven years we will wake up and all of a sudden be behind in science and technology with no quick or easy way to catch up. 

The real bill will be paid on lost competitiveness for the next generation, and opportunities exported to countries that sustained their investments in R&D regardless of temporary economic crises.

For these important communities in the United States to remain robust, innovative and world-leading, we need to return to principled, well-thought-out and sustained budgeting that provides necessary R&D funding to support innovation and invention. We need to return to a long-term mindset that strategically takes into account the roles that science and technology play in the economic future of the nation. 

A return to normal budgeting procedures complemented by a long-term strategic focus will reassure private industry and the research community that the federal government is serious about its support of the sector. It also will have a positive impact on our economy and enable the aerospace and defense R&D sectors to continue their history of creating meaningful, well-paying jobs.

The aerospace and defense R&D communities are doing what they can to minimize the price of the ransom we are currently facing. Every single entity — government, industry and academia — is engaged in discussions, sharing information and performing analyses to ensure that they are working efficiently and effectively so that every available dollar is being used wisely. Despite these improved efficiencies, too many opportunities for collaboration and stimulating innovation are being missed due to the continuing uncertainty in our environment. 

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Science & Technology Forum in January 2014 near Washington will play host to the important sectors of the aerospace community as we strive to address these important issues and look for ways to maintain our leadership in R&D and science and technology. AIAA will continue to work with our members and partners to foster these critical discussions, but we can only solve part of the problem. We need a coherent, long-term stable vision that can carry us forward as a nation. That can only occur when the ransoming of our future for short-term gains and short-sighted goals ceases and reasoned communication and a willingness to compromise are introduced back into our society, once more lubricating the gears of government and moving us forward.


Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is executive director of AIAA, the world’s largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession, with more than 35,000 individual members in 79 countries.

Article Comments

Sandy Magnus has very precisely captured my own sentiments with respect to the industry. Let me expand on the academic sector.

I believe that our seed corn is at more than a precipitous level: if we do not change our course in the next year, especially as other nations increase their budgets and participation in space technology and exploration, we will have fully lost the gains of the Apollo era. The declining investments in R&D and education will be reflected in our decreased economic well being, decreased jobs, and loss of international prestige. Consider that fully 70% or more of our PhD students in the US studying engineering are foreign nationals, and they are returning to their home countries. While at one time it was only a question of green cards, recent data presented by the former President of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Charles Vest, indicates that it is also the pull of their home countries. Most of those students are from China and India. PhDs are the future faculty members on which we rely to educate our workforce and to apply as Principal Investigators for government funded research. As President Obama's own Advisory Council on Science and Technnology (PCAST) stated in 2012, we need 1 million new additional STEM graduates in the next ten years to stay competitive. At the present time, China graduates ten times as many engineers as the US, and India four times as many (National Science Foundation Data) As a retired NASA engineer and astronaut who was part of the "STEM" invention in the late 1990s, I hear the words, but I do not see the action from Washington DC. What we need from my point of view:

1) VISION: Like many of my generation, I was a product of the inspiration of the first Apollo missions, inspired as a 9 year old girl on a cattle ranch in rural Washington state. In fact, most of my freshmen engineering class were inspired to enter engineering because of Lunar Exploration. Just look at the current European Conference on Space and education---they understand the hook to incentivize their future workforce. Urge President Obama to adhere to his pre-election promise to return humans to the Moon and on to Mars....and then fund the missions. Be realistic about asteroids we have defined but not yet found. We cannot drive budgets, schedules, and public support on those types of missions. Incidentally, by my estimate, the first year of stimulus funds (Trillion $) would have funded a 10 year development program in support of a human mission to Mars, and resulted in many more long term 21st Century jobs. That the current NASA budget is less than 1/2 of 1% of the federal budget says much about our lack of commitment to the future.

2) STEM GRANTS and LOANS: Implement an undergraduate educational program similar to that funded by the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations: the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). It funded academically but financially stressed students such as myself into engineering and the hard sciences, and educated K-12 teachers in math, chemistry, physics and biology. In today's dollars, that would be $2B to $3B. One of the best investments we could make for our future and one of the best made in the past.

3) STEM K-12: Reinstate the 30% of K-12 STEM funding moved from NASA into the Dept. of Education and other destinations. By agreement decades ago, especially the original 1958 Space Act, aerospace education, including to the public, was delegated to NASA. There is no subject matter equivalence in the Dept. of Ed. Additionally, the OMB position that NASA public education is "marketing" and should be discouraged is detrimental to the nation ---it should be reversed. Not every school has internet, so we cannot rely on teachers and students finding the NASA web site. Reinstate budget for "print" materials and provide more prominence at national teacher meetings and youth conferences. Astronaut and engineer school visits were part of annual outreach travel budgets. Now schools have to raise their own funds. At a recent visit to a large middle school in a large urban area, I learned that not a single student knew that the ISS was in Earth orbit ---aerospace was not in the middle school required curriculum. Perhaps there is a correlation with the international 9th grade PISA math scores. Many of our urban schools, such as those in Washington DC and New York, rank below more than 40 other nations.

4) GRADUATE SCHOOL: Increase graduate school stipends competitive so that our BS students are incentivized into MS and PhD degrees. At the present time, a US citizen student may be fortunate to receive $30K/year to study for a PhD when they could easily demand up to $100K after graduating with a BS. (at the UH, we have 4 engineering jobs available for every graduate) With loans to repay it is an easy choice. At the same time, graduate students from China may not only receive a US stipend, they are also probably receiving a stipend from China. Without US graduate students, it is difficult for universities to propose for government grants and impossible for the government agencies to rely on University research and the development of their workforce.

5) SPACE TECHNOLOGY R&D INVESTMENT: In both 2008 and 2011, I participated in nearly year long studies with the NAE to help prioritize our nation's space technology investments. We brought together the best and brightest to help lay the framework for our nation's future, only to find it that Congress and the Administration could not agree on funding and strategy, and that the OMB inserted its own set of priorities. The outcome has been a disaster for the nation. We have some of the brightest and most dedicated engineers and scientists in the nation resident at NASA. We are losing them quickly. This is intellectual capital which has been developed over decades and is not easily replaced. The public largely does not recognize the situation because they believe that commercial companies such as SpaceX will be taking us to the Moon and Mars along with other nations. While we would all like to see that future vision in decades to come, that is not the near term reality. Those commercial companies competing to take passenger to the ISS or low earth orbit are not investing in the R&D we discussed in our academy reports, and the subject matter experts who would lead these efforts, some of whom took us to the Moon, have either left the agency because of budget cuts or are, very sadly, deceased. If the government is not funding R&D in its own labs, such as NASA, is not funding the universities and therefore faculty and students, and the commercial companies have no market incentive to do so (and are signing space act agreements to obtain it from NASA) just who is expected to make it happen? I may have just come from a farm, but even common sense said that you always maintained your supply of seed corn.

On one final point with which I agree with Sandy: there is little investment at the current time by our government in the type of strategic thinking with respect to our aerospace education and industry which will keep our nation great. The educational-research-development system by which the US built its science and technology base over the last 100 years has been the envy of the world. This system helped us to prevail in two World Wars, helped us to lead in technology development, patents, and nobel prizes, yielded one of the best educational systems in the world and provided the environment for companies and products which have transformed our world to thrive. Why are we allowing that to unravel?

What will the future historians say as we fade into history? Leadership and prosperity are not given. They are earned. For the future of this nation, I ask that the Congress and the President sit down at the table together, listen to their "experts", and fund the nation's space architecture, both civilian and military, at the levels which are required to retain leadership and security. Anything less is an abrogation of the responsibilities they assumed when they were elected.


Bonnie J. Dunbar, PhD NAE
M. D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of Houston
Retired Astronaut, STS-61A, 32, 50, 71, and 89

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