National Research Council Report Finds NASA in Need of Strategic Guidance

December 6th, 2012

NASA’s long legacy of achievement, from the Apollo moon missions to the assembly of the International Space Station and the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, is in jeopardy, according to a new study from the National Research Council.

Artist's view of Mars. Image Credit/NASA

Key findings from NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus suggest that neither the public nor the agency itself is sufficiently engaged in the most recent  long term goals outlined by the White House and Congress, including launching astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. The mission would set the stage for future human exploration of Mars.

Budgets base lined at $17.7 billion annually for the foreseeable future are insufficient for that mission and the wide range of science and aeronautics goals NASA is pursuing, according to a 12 member NRC study panel led by Albert Carnesale, a former UCLA chancellor and nuclear engineer.

“The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is at a transitional point in its history and is facing a set of circumstances that it has not faced in combination before,” the 80 page study undertaken at the direction of Congressional appropriators concludes.

Those factors include a budget under stress and underpinning increasingly expensive missions as well as an aging, far-flung network of field centers and a human spaceflight program without a compelling new mission, or even the means to launch its own astronauts.

“The lack of national consensus on NASA’s most publicly visible mission, along with out-year budget uncertainty, has resulted in the lack of strategic focus necessary for national agencies operating in today’s budgetary reality,” according to the report. “As a result, NASA’s distribution of resources may be out of sync with what it can achieve relative to what it has been asked to do. NASA now faces major challenges in nearly all of its primary endeavors: human spaceflight, Earth and space science, and aeronautics.”

The study panel stressed the problem lies above NASA, resting with those responsible for shaping national policy.

The report outlines four broad and non exclusive options for addressing its concerns:

** Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce NASA infrastructure and personnel costs to improve efficiency.

**Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with otherU.S.government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners.

**Increase the size of the NASA budget.

** Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA’s current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile. This would require reducing or eliminating one or more of NASA’s current portfolio elements: human exploration, Earth and space science, aeronautics, and space technology  in favor of the remaining elements.

The NRC panel was not asked to recommend future goals.

But the members, including former astronauts, NASA managers and representatives from industry, the military and academia, forged a half dozen recommendations.

They urge the White House to take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA’s future outlined in a set of clearly defined strategic goals and objectives. The process, developed with Congress, should involve “meaningful technical consultations” with potential international partners. The outcome should be a set of strategic goals that are ambitious, yet technically rational and focused on the long term.

The report follows the 2011 retirement of NASA’s long running space shuttle program.

When President Obama took office in 2010, the White House initiated a study of the agency’s Constellation Program, an initiative to return U. S. explorers to the moon by 2020 and establish a lunar base. Constellation was cancelled after the study concluded it was falling behind schedule and lacked sufficient resources.