Federal role in technology redefined by Capital Hill
By the end of the year, government involvement in developing and promoting technology could change sharply. That, at least, is an aim of Republican leaders in Congress. Especially vulnerable are programs that border on industrial policy. Top targets for funding cuts are the Advanced Technology Program of the Commerce Department and the Technology Reinvestment Program of the Defense Department. Also scheduled for budget slashing-perhaps eradication-is Congress' own Office of Technology Assessment. It could become part of the Congressional Research Service. Or its functions could pass to an outside group, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The future of federal laboratories run by the Energy Department is in doubt, too. An independent task force, headed by Robert Galvin, former chairman of Motorola Corp., says the labs are bogged in bureaucracy. It recommends privatizing the labs. If that can't be done, the panel wants the labs to abandon promotion of industrial competitiveness. Instead, it says, they should concentrate on national security, environmental technology, and fundamental science.
Designs of car bumpers chided after crash tests
Industrial designers seem to have more sway than design engineers in decisions over bumpers on new cars. So contend officials of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, headquartered in Arlington, VA. The institute put 14 cars through four crash tests at 5 mph. Each racked up more than $1,400 in damages. Cars subjected to the latest yearly tests are all 4-door mid-size models. The Honda Accord fared best, with a total of $1,433 damage. The Nissan Maxima came out worst, with a $3,605 bill. The reinforcement bar on the Maxima bowed in the front-into-flat-barrier test. "And there's not much strength or energy-absorbing capacity in the rear, either," claims Institute President Brian O'Neill. "Nissan engineers should be ashamed." Institute officials champion a bumper system that is more practical than attractive. Flexible and unpainted, their multipart system would extend from the car body.
Administration pushes ahead with ATP, despite critics
In his budget request for fiscal year 1996, President Clinton steps up support for the embattled Advanced Technology Program (ATP). He seeks a 22.5% rise to $642.5 million for technology development and industrial outreach. The funds cover ATP, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and a program connected with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Meanwhile, ATP officials are accepting proposals for projects in four more "focused" areas. Submission deadlines are April 11 for motor vehicle manufacturing technology; April 19 for advanced vapor compression refrigeration systems; April 26 for catalysis and biocatalysis technologies; and May 3 for materials processing for heavy manufacturing.
Panel seeks ways to simplify safety seats for children
What design changes will make safety seats for children easier to install and use in autos? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has formed a panel to ponder the question. Members will include engineers from the auto and seat-belt industries, a pediatric physician, and mothers. No federal employees will attend panel meetings. "Instead of the usual practice of announcing proposed government solutions to a problem," explains NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez, "we are trying the innovative approach of first giving the affected industries an opportunity to work together on solutions." The panel must make recommendations by June 1.
New ideas at NASA includeprivatized space shuttle
Changes keep rocketing along at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Among the latest: consideration of a top-level plan to transfer management of the next generation of space shuttles to private contractors. The government would become simply a customer. NASA foresees big savings in time and cost. "We're looking at new approaches to space flight," comments a NASA spokesman. The space agency is putting more emphasis on unmanned spacecraft that it can build quickly and relatively cheaply. Its Discovery Program, for example, calls for small probes that NASA can construct within three years for less than $150 million. The probes will have specific scientific missions. As part of the Discovery Program, NASA picked Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. to build, launch, and operate a spacecraft to map the Moon's surface chemistry. Called the Lunar Prospector, the robot probe has a launch date of June 1997. It will orbit the Moon at low altitude for at least a year. Shaped like a drum, the craft is made of an advanced graphite-epoxy composite. It will be a bit over 4 ft in diameter. Hydrazine will power six thrusters, imparting a top velocity change of 333 ft/sec. Cost: $59 million. NASA is reviewing three other Discovery proposals, and will select one this fall to develop.