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NASA Glenn Coverage: Dreams of Mars Whittle Reality of Economics

Tuesday, March 8, 2005 at 9:57 AM

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is one of a handful of federal agencies targeted for a slight increase in the President's proposed 2006 budget. But dreams of Mars are whittling away at the first "A" in NASA. At research labs around the country, aeronautics budgets are slated to be slashed by a third over the next two years. But in states where the biggest cuts are planned, local Congressional delegations are fighting back. From member station WCPN in Cleveland, Karen Schaefer reports.

From the highway only a massive gray 1950’s-era aircraft hanger marks the presence of the NASA Glenn Research Center sprawled on the fringes of Cleveland’s airport. But once inside the gate you enter a small city of domes, hangers, laboratories and test sites populated by some of the nation’s top engineers and rocket scientists. Since 1941 Glenn taken the lead in developing everything from the world’s most powerful aircraft engine to better de-icing techniques.

But here in the birthplace of aviation, these heirs of the Wright Brothers’ ambitions are facing a crisis. Unless changes are made in next year’s budget, millions of dollars will be cut from Glenn’s aeronautics programs and director Julian Earls says hundreds of the center’s top researchers could lose their jobs.

Julian Earls: It’s up to 700. We are optimistic that as we gain in these competitions, that number would not reach the 700-level.

The competition is NASA’s new way of doing business. Since President Bush laid out his new vision for the agency NASA has been redirecting its spending to space. In place of basic aeronautics research here, the agency will bid out projects among its research centers and Glenn could win back some of the jobs it stands to lose.

But that may be too late for Steve Nemets, a mechanical engineer who works for a NASA Glenn contractor.

Steve Nemets: You know I’ve worked at NASA for 19 years. I’m going to be laid off Tuesday and I’m not sure what we’re going to do.

Over the next two months, NASA Glenn administrators will decide which of its aeronautics test sites will have to close. What they can’t say yet is how many of the 1,300 contractors who work at Glenn will also get pink slips.

Steve Nemets: It’s a great place to work. We have some fabulous engineers here, very brilliant. And I just hope NASA Glenn is in the future here.

Dennis Kucinich: I want to start by giving you an update since our last meeting…

A few miles away Congressman Dennis Kucinich has gathered with local leaders to formulate a battle plan.

Dennis Kucinich: Look there are people already being laid off. We have contracts being closed out. We don’t have any luxury of time here. We have got to move fast.

Fellow Democrat and county commissioner Jimmy Dimora says it’s time to cash in on Ohio’s political capital.

Jimmy Dimora: We’ve got to remind the President that Ohio was the state that put him over the top. We continue to hear in the state of the union address how the economy’s turning around. Well, it’s not happening here.

Ohio’s two Republican Senators will also try to lobby for aeronautics, but that may be a tough sell. Experts in the business community view aeronautics as a mature industry that should be funded by corporate research.

But it’s not just the Cleveland center that’s in trouble. At NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, more than a thousand aeronautics jobs are slated to be cut. Retired Langley aeronautics administrator Roy Harris is now a lobbyist with the NASA Aeronautics Support Team and argues that cutting aeronautics research will hurt the U.S. economy.

Roy Harris: From the 1920’s through the early 1990’s, the U.S. dominated the world in aviation technology. But that’s no longer the case. The European Union, they’ve contributed large amounts of funding for basic aeronautics research to the point that now the Airbus has more than 50% of the market.

Harris points to the President’s new helicopter as an example of American aviation technology leaving U.S. borders. It’s been contracted to (Boeing) Lockheed Martin, but will be manufactured from parts made in Italy and Great Britain. Harris says without government research, the U.S. stands to lose two million high-paying jobs.

But whether or not Congress acts to fund aeronautics under NASA, employees at NASA Glenn in Cleveland say they still have contributions to make to the agency’s new mission and are hoping for the chance to prove it. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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