Congress Ponders Space Leadership Provision

March 10th, 2013


Mars, a possible human destination. Image Credit/NASA


Congress is considering some substantial changes in the way NASA is led, managed from the outside and funded, as policy makers attempt to give the nation’s civil space program a sharper focus as well as the stability to ensure the sustained political, public and financial support to advance human exploration and address other pressing issues.

Those include the possibility of alien life; the origin and composition of dark matter and dark energy; and terrestrial climate change.

The deliberations may find their way into a new NASA authorization act, the first for the agency since 2010. The three-year-old legislation supported extension of U. S.-led International Space Station operations through 2020; efforts by NASA to foster commercial crew and cargo transporation services for activities in Earth orbit; as well as development of the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule for future human deep space exploration.


In Parallel with Budgeting Process


Working along side a stalled federal budgeting process, Congressional deliberations on the space agency changes got underway on Feb. 27 with a House Space Subcommittee hearing on the Space Leadership Provision Act.  The act’s provisions would establish a renewable six-year term for NASA’s administrator as well as a board of directors appointed by the White House, House and Senate to prepare budgets as well as policy direction. The board’s budgets would go directly to Congress as well as the President, essentially circumventing the Office of Management and Budget.

The FBI’s director currently serves a six-year appointment, and the National Science Foundation is guided by a board of directors.

“NASA too often is hampered by short term decisions that have a long term negative impact,” said U. S. Rep. John Culbertson, of Texas, a member of the House appropriations panel that funds NASA who co-sponsored the leadership measure with U. S. Frank Wolf, of Virginia, the appropriations panel chair. “We must step back, look at the agency as a whole and help put it on a path to achieve worthy goals in behalf of our nation.”


Lack of Focus Expensive



Under current management and oversight practice, NASA has started then faced cancellation of 27 significant programs over the past two decades at a cost of $20 billion, according to Culbertson’s estimate.

In this illustration, NASA astronauts approach an asteroid. Image Credit/NASA

The setbacks are embodied in the current administration’s cancellation of the Constellation program, announced by former President Bush to establish a human lunar base by 2024. Following the termination over funding issues, President Obama directed NASA to work toward a human mission to an asteroid by 2025, as a stepping stone toward the eventual exploration of Mars.

However, a National Research Council report, issued in late 2012, questioned the sustainability of the asteroid mission and declared it less than inspirational to the country as a whole.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Wolf told the Science Committee. “The problem has been around under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

However, it has been exacerbated by the retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet nearly two years ago, said Wolf. The retirement left the U. S.unable to launch its own astronauts until 2017, at the earliest. That is the point at which U. S.commercial companies would begin human orbital missions, if NASA receives sufficient funding to foster the development.

NASA's Kepler space telescope looks for Earth-like planets around other stars. Image Credit/NASA

“If you were to ask NASA employees, astronauts, scientists, engineers and the contractors what the agency mission is, you would get a confused look  and several answers,” Wolf testified. “It’s hard to make progress toward any goal if we don’t know where we are going, much less when and how we are to get there.”


Leadership in Peril?


The situation has placedU. S.leadership in space in peril, according to theVirginialawmaker.

“I expect this decade will be the make or break moment for U. S leadership,” he added.

Chinais poised to step up, according to Wolf.

The bill found support among a pair of policy experts who also expressed their for the future of theU. space before the space subcommittee.

“I am more concerned today about (NASA’s) future that at any time in my involvement,” testified Thomas Young, a former Lockheed Martin senior executive, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight and mission director for NASA’s Viking Mars mission. “Resources in terms of money and, maybe even more important, human talent have been wasted in cancelled projects and aborted strategies. It’s a national embarrassment.”

Young, who has led reviews of several past troubled NASA programs, found the space station in jeopardy of losing its science agenda as the agency struggles to stand up commercial cargo and crew transportation services to replace the shuttle.


U.S. Space Consensus Necessary


“A major effort is needed to establish a consensus as to aUnited Statesstrategy for human exploration. That must be followed by funding the strategy,” Young emphasized. “A strategy that is not funded is not a strategy.”

He urged the space subcommittee to consider the moon, the moons of Mars, or Mars itself as the only credible destinations for human explorers.

Human exploration should be accompanied by efforts to unravel the mysteries of life elsewhere, dark matter and dark energy as well as climate change and its impact on the Earth, he said.

Elliott Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs non profit, briefed the Science Committee on a recent study by his organization that urges policy makers to focus NASA on pioneering activities, while setting aside conflicting agendas for other agencies.

“We define pioneering as to be among the first to open a region,  open it for use and development by others,” said Pulham “What we are talking about is a solid, sustainable, repeatable process that stimulates jobs, technology and innovation, strengthens our industrial base, projects soft power abroad and delivers all the inspiration we need so our nation once again values science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”