Logsdon and Pace Criticize Lack of White House Leadership on NASA, Say Agency is Adrift

Logsdon and Pace Criticize Lack of White House Leadership on NASA, Say Agency is Adrift

George Washington University (GWU) space policy experts John Logsdon and Scott Pace agree NASA is adrift today, particularly with regard to the human spaceflight program, and blame the White House for a lack of leadership.

Speaking in a teleconference this morning, the two veteran observers of and participants in U.S. space policy offered their views on NASA’s past, present and future.   Pace has a long career in and out of government, including high ranking positions at NASA and the White House under Republican Administrations and was a top NASA official under the George W. Bush administration.  Today he is Director of GWU’s Space Policy Institute.

Logsdon is considered the “dean” of space policy and published his first book on President John F. Kennedy’s decision to go the Moon in 1970.   A GWU professor since that era, he founded the Space Policy Institute and is now a professor emeritus there.  He recently authored a new book about Kennedy’s role in the Apollo program and is now writing one on President Richard Nixon’s post-Apollo decisions.

Both believe NASA is adrift today and criticized the Obama Administration for its lack of leadership.  Logsdon stressed that when he talks about a lack of leadership he is referring more to the White House than to NASA itself.

Pace said the “sense of drift, or the sense of a lack of consensus is fairly serious” and shows up particularly in terms of relationships with the international community.    He believes returning humans to the Moon – the program he was implementing when he worked at NASA – should be the next step for human spaceflight because it responds to today’s geopolitical environment since many other countries want to participate in such a mission.   The Obama Administration’s goals of sending people to an asteroid and then to Mars are beyond the capabilities of those countries right now, he explains, so they would be left out of such plans.

Logsdon views the ongoing debate as a continuation of four decades of “failure to reach consensus” on NASA’s future, especially for human spaceflight.   Articulating a rationale for human spaceflight is extremely difficult and he anticipates that the National Research Council committee currently tasked with that assignment will not succeed either.  “I don’t think there is an answer,” he said; instead it is a matter of “personal choice” by individuals and leaders and the “lack of leadership of this administration” has “put us in a situation which is unfortunate.”

The Obama Administration’s long term goal of sending people to Mars reflects a long-standing paradigm that began with a vision advanced by Wernher von Braun decades ago.  In response to a question about whether that should, in fact, be the goal, Logsdon agreed that it is rarely challenged, but there are alternatives such as construction of space solar power satellites or free-flying space colonies.  The “fixation” on sending humans to Mars “takes us in a particular direction that’s been there for half a century or more” without debate on whether that’s the right direction, he added.

Asked to speculate about how the departure of NASA Deputy Administrator and Obama Administration insider Lori Garver may affect NASA in the coming years, Logsdon said it depends on whether she will be replaced and, if so, by someone who shares her commitment to “revitalization and innovation.”   If not, he worries there could be “backsliding” on some of the changes she championed, such as the commercial crew effort and NASA’s commitment to ensuring competition between at least two companies.

Pace hopes that a replacement for Garver might be able to fix the process by which Administration decisions are made and announced.  He and Logsdon both criticized how the Obama Administration handled the roll out of its decision to terminate the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon and instead focus on sending people to an asteroid.  The announcement came as a surprise to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and pitted Congress and the White House against each other in a bruising debate over NASA’s future.  The resulting compromise in the 2010 NASA authorization act left NASA with direction to do both what the White House wanted and what Congress wanted, but without the requisite resources to succeed.

Logsdon’s disenchantment with the Obama Administration’s treatment of NASA is much broader.   By this time President Obama should have invited international partners to work together to define the future of the space program and should have given NASA “a relatively crisp sense of what it’s role should be,” he insisted, but Obama “hasn’t done that” and “that’s been very disappointing to me.” 

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