Why Research Costs So Much

March 1, 1957
Everyone is quite aware of the three-fold increase in the cost of just about everything. The nickel magazine, the nickel cigar, and the nickel subway ride today all cost fifteen cents, or more. While perhaps we don’t understand why it must be that prices seemingly are on a perpetual escalator, and while we may grumble about the phenomenon, we accept it with varying degrees of grace as a way of life. Because it is quite a specialized subject—and also because in this particular field the costs have risen at a much faster pace—many people have difficulty in understanding why aeronautical research and development have become “so expensive.” Actually, once you stop to realize all the factors involved, the basic reasons are quite simple. We are caught not only in the bind of rising costs; in aeronautics we have progressed into regions where everything is fantastically complex. Let’s face it, we are just beginning to learn the facts of hypersonic life!

On top of all this, we are being forced to operate under conditions—as regards timing—where we are being threatened by world conquest by another nation. Sometimes the factors that make costs go up are beyond our control. Nonetheless, these same factors can affect survival by a profit-making manufacturer, or even survival by a freedom-loving nation.

When I first went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1921 (fresh out of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology) as a junior engineer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, I was very proud to be joining the largest aeronautical research establishment in the United States (and, I believe, in all the world).

Employment at the NACA’s Laboratory in 1921 was near the hundred mark, give or take a half-dozen men. The annual operating budget was $192,000, which included the expenses of the NACA headquarters staff in Washington.

About the time I arrived at Langley, a momentous decision was being made. The NACA was going to double the number of its wind tunnels—to two! What made this action even more important than the expansion itself was the fact that the new apparatus was to be a pressure tunnel, enabling the engineers to obtain aerodynamic data that approached full-scale values, even though only small models were used.

The cost of that new pressure wind tunnel—the first of its kind in the world—was about $70,000, and its cost of operation—electric power, salaries, models, data reduction, and all the rest, was $31,300 a year.

Through the years, the NACA pioneered in the design and construction of radical new research tools that its engineers and scientists could use to increase the store of knowledge so necessary for further performance improvement in aeronautics. In 1927, for example, another new wind tunnel—the world’s largest—was put into operation. It was so large (it had a circular test section twenty feet in diameter) that full-size propellers and wing sections could be tested. Within a year, research in the tunnel had shown how the speed of an airplane powered by an air-cooled engine could be increased by fifteen percent or more without use of additional power.

By the mid-thirties, the contributions of the NACA had been recognized internationally, to the point where in Great Britain it was conceded that “many of our most capable design staffs prefer to base their technical work upon the results of the American NACA.” And yet the NACA had not been greatly expanded, either in personnel or in operating cost. As of July 1, 1936, total employment was 385, and all operating expenses for the preceding twelve months totaled $766,530.

About that time, it became apparent that in Europe, to quote from a statement by Dr. Joseph S. Ames, then NAACA chairman, “The greatly increased interest of the major powers in fostering aeronautical research and their determined efforts to excel in this rapidly expanding engineering science constitute a scientific challenge to America’s present leadership.” In this country, we increased our research activity, but the increases were modest in comparison with the enormous acceleration of effort overseas. Even as late as the summer of 1939, the NACA’s total complement was only 523, including only 278 technical people. Operating expenses for the NACA for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1941, were $2,800,000.

With our involvement in World War II, NACA costs skyrocketed. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1945, operating costs were $26,557,330—nine times the rate before Pearl Harbor—and employment jumped to 6,449, in these years, the emphasis of NACA research had been greatly changed, from investigations that were largely basic in nature, to ad hoc, or “quick fix” projects, designed to improve performance of existing aircraft or power plants.

Once the war was over we might have expected—indeed welcomed—an easing of the pace of aeronautical research. After all, the Germans and the Japanese had just been thoroughly vanquished. And surely our Allies would be as much delighted as we with a return to a life in which the rich fruits of a peaceful existence could be enjoyed. Under such conditions the researcher could happily apply himself to the business of an orderly projection of further knowledge about the new and fascinating happenings in aviation—the development of jet and rocket power, the advent of supersonic flight.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as we all had hoped.

We learned, the hard way, that the terrible costs of World War II did not assure a lasting peace, not even one as long as had resulted from the fighting of World War I. we learned that our one-time comrades, the Russians, had launched upon a determined drive for world conquest. More to the point of this discussion, we learned—in the skies over Korea and elsewhere—that the Russians were challenging our position of aerial supremacy, and that they were being very logical in their approach. If they were behind—and they were—well, then they would do whatever was necessary to catch up. Especially, they would work harder at the job than we.

Dr. Clifford C. Furnas, just now returned to the University of Buffalo after service as Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research and Development), has also served as a member of the NACA. Recently, he pointed out that today it requires $1.43 to buy what $1 would have bought in the way of research and development in the period from 1947 to 1949. his figures don’t take into account any change in complexity of the problems faced—what he is saying is that the R&D dollar of 1957—applied to the same job—is worth only fifty-seven cents, compared to that of 1947-49, when the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland said, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” perhaps she had such a situation in mind.

Of course, of all the activities you could name, the one least deserving of being considered as “keeping in the same place,” would be aeronautics. Not quite ten years ago, Capt. Charles E. Yeager, USAF, made history by flying supersonically for the first time. The best performance of the Bell X-1 was in the neighborhood of 1,000 mph. in 1953, it was officially announced that Chuck Yeager had flown the X-1A at 1,650 mph. last fall, the Bell X-2 went even faster (see “The Last Flight of the X-2,” beginning on page 41). In passing, I cannot resist mentioning that in this research airplane program of pioneering, the NACA has been proudly teamed as a partner with the military services and the aircraft industry.

In 1946, the NACA completed a new wind tunnel at its Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in California. It had a test section measuring seven by ten feet, and its top speed was a little below that of sound at altitude (660 mph). It cost $961,000 to build. A staff of forty—engineers and operating people, with salaries totaling $126,000—ran the tunnel. The year’s power cost was $3,400.

Compare these figures with the ones for the supersonic Unitary Wind Tunnel completed last year at the Ames Laboratory: construction, $27,000,000; staff, 147; salaries, $845,000; power cost, $1,650,000 excepting only the difference in speed and improved instrumentation, the research conducted in the new wind tunnel is the same sort as in the one built in 1946!

At our Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, where we concentrate on power plant research, a facility built in 1946 to permit study of engines under operating conditions cost $276,000. it required eight men to do the work, with a yearly payroll of $26,000. Power cost was $10 an hour. Ten years later, a similar facility—differing only in the extent necessary to accommodate the more powerful turbojet engines under test—cost $18,500,000 to build. Seventy-four men were needed to do the work, with a yearly payroll of $426,000. Power cost was $800 an hour.

As may be seen, the cost of performing necessary research in connection with man-carrying supersonic airplanes is becoming increasingly expensive when measured in dollars. But that is only part of the story. The possibility of delivering a ballistic missile halfway around the world in thirty minutes or less has implications that become the more frightening when it is realized that other nations are strenuously working on the enormous problems which such a project involves.

Here we face the exceedingly difficult task of devising ways to design and build the equipment by which we can duplicate in the laboratory the extremely high temperatures and the other conditions of future flight. Even though great attention has been given this matter, only recently have ways been learned to design and build the small, pilot models with which to demonstrate the practicability of constructing the radical new tools so necessary for the rapid expansion of our knowledge.

A single example of the kind of equipment we must build will suffice. This year we are asking for funds to construct a hypersonic facility at the Langley Laboratory where we can study problems at all points along the speed and temperature scales up to Mach numbers of twenty (13,200 mph) and 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Such a complex of equipment, need I say, will not be inexpensive, nor will it be easy to construct.

So far, all the emphasis on the cost of research has been in terms of dollars. Respecting dollars, certainly any thinking person will concede there must be some limit to the expenditure of funds, our nation can make. That, of course, is a statement equally applicable to any federal expenditure. I would quickly add that the cost of aeronautical research to date in the United States has been relatively modest, at least in comparison with our total income.

There are other aspects—other costs in terms of scientific manpower and in terms of time. In these areas, there may be grave doubt whether we are so favorably positioned as in the matter of dollar wealth.

Solving the problems of aeronautics today demands the effort of talented young men trained in many scientific disciplines. There is a shortage of such talent. Our technical schools are graduating fewer young men each year than are needed, not only by aeronautics but by all the other facets of our economy, civilian and military. I am not proposing that we draft this manpower. However, I will observe that unless sufficient brainpower can be marshaled for attack upon the problems of aeronautics, they won’t be solved as quickly as may be necessary, no matter how many additional billions of dollars we appropriate. I will observe, too, that in Russia, the number of technically trained young people being graduated from their schools is accelerating very rapidly.

In the justifications which the NACA prepares for its construction projects—these are presented for consideration by the Congress—total time for completion is carefully estimated in the case of each project. Here they are for Fiscal Year 1958, expressed in months: thirty-six, twenty-four, twenty-four, twenty-eight, thirty, forty-two, etc. assume the money is appropriated and the manpower is available. Even so, anywhere from two to three and a half years will pass before the new pieces of research equipment can be completed and put into operation.

Once in operation, more time will pass while the solutions are sought for the problems demanding urgent attention.

Yes, the business of aeronautical research must be considered expensive when measured in terms of dollars, manpower, and time.

If I thought it necessary, I could ask whether such expense of aeronautical research would loom so high if compared with the costs that would accrue if we tried to build our airplanes and missiles without first learning the answers that research provides. Too, I could ask how the expense of research would compare with the costs of every kind that would accrue if we didn’t build our airpower—if we waited for a conquest-minded nation to accomplish the job.

Instead, I shall conclude by finishing the quotation from the Red Queen: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

About the Author: Mr. Crowley has been Associate Director for Research at NACA headquarters since 1947. He graduated from M.I.T. in 1920 and became a junior engineer at NACA’s Langley Aeronautical Lab the next year. In 1923 he became head of the Flight Research Section. In 1940 he was named chief of the Aerodynamics Division. In 1943 he became head of the Research Department, and from 1945-47 was Acting Director of Aeronautical Research at NACA’s Washington office. He’s a Fellow of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences.