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N.C. A&T, Others, Win Bid to Develop Aerospace Institute

N.C. A&T, Others, Win Bid to Develop Aerospace Institute
National research facility to become a strategic partner with NASA
By Ronald Roach


North Carolina A&T State University is among a consortium of six universities and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that will develop and manage the proposed National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA has pledged up to $25 million in annual financing for the NIA during its first five years, including $1.5 million in 2002 to get the center in operation in 2003.

“We are very excited about receiving this highly competitive award. It will help us enhance our research programs while serving a national need,” says North Carolina A&T chancellor Dr. James C. Renick.

The NIA, conceived as a government-academic partnership, will become a strategic partner with NASA in aerospace and atmospheric research. The institute also will serve as a national model in graduate education, distance learning and continuing education to serve the U.S. aerospace research community and manufacturing industries. As the institute grows, it will sustain itself with research grants and major industry contracts, according to officials.

This past spring and summer, the competition among university consortiums to obtain the award attracted significant media attention because the two leading competitors were consortiums led by Virginia-based institutions, with historically Black Hampton University as a lead school in one of the consortiums. Norfolk State University, another historically Black institution, was part of the consortium led by Hampton and Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Va. (see Black Issues, July 4).

The winning consortium, however, is led by the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Other consortium schools are the Georgia Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, University of Maryland College Park and North Carolina A&T.

“This award will be a significant new research and educational asset for A&T. It will allow us a level of collaboration with other institutions that we have not had in the past. Now we will be able to conduct research together and set the research future for NASA. Additionally, we can enlarge our Ph.D. production and advance in the aerospace arena,” says Dr. Joseph Monroe, dean of the A&T College of Engineering.

In 2001, NASA officials launched a national search for university and nonprofit partners to run the high-profile venture, which is expected to be constructed near the NASA Langley Research Center campus in Hampton, Va.

During the NASA competition, Hampton and Old Dominion had been considered strong lead partners because both have a well-established relationship with NASA Langley. In 2001, Hampton secured research contracts from Langley valued at $4.56 million, the highest of any Virginia school and the third highest of any research entity in the nation. Hampton is the only Virginia institution that offers a degree program in atmospheric sciences, a critical research area in NIA’s mission. In addition, Old Dominion garnered the second-highest amount of Langley contracts among Virginia schools at $2.37 million, and it runs a wind tunnel facility for Langley research.

The NIA could employ as many as 250 scientists, professional researchers, graduate students and faculty within the first five years of operation, according to officials.

North Carolina A&T officials say approximately 30 faculty members at their schools in engineering, science and technology are expected to participate in each of the institute’s research, outreach and educational development activities. “A&T will be involved in all components of this exciting venture including fundamental aerospace research, graduate education, outreach and technology transfer,” says Dr. William Craft, an A&T mechanical engineering professor who served on the consortium’s proposal team.

NASA officials expect that a mix of U.S. Defense Department, state and local governments, and other customers will make its newly established National Institute for Aerospace largely self-sufficient within five years, according to NIA management office director Charlie Harris. The institute is expected to be fully operational in January 2003, with a starting staff of roughly 50.

Officials say schools outside of the winning consortium would be invited to conduct research through the NIA. In a news media report, a Virginia Tech official pointed out Hampton’s expertise in atmospheric sciences as a great addition to the institute’s work.

Hampton officials expressed disappointment with the NASA selection because they believed it would have significantly boosted the research capacities of the local universities closest to the proposed aerospace institute.

“It would have brought so much more to the region. We’ll still be on the map. We just won’t have control of it as much. Now we’re just a follower, not a leader,” Bill Thomas, director of the Hampton office of governmental relations told the Daily Press in Hampton, Va.

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