NASA Asserts Its New Strategic Plan Provides "Clear, Unified, and Long-Term Direction"

NASA Asserts Its New Strategic Plan Provides "Clear, Unified, and Long-Term Direction"

According to NASA, its new strategic plan, released last week, provides the agency with a “clear, unified, and long-term direction” for all its activities. NASA’s previous strategic plan was criticized in a 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report requested by Congress that found a lack of “national consensus” on the agency’s strategic goals and objectives.

Government agencies are required to prepare strategic plans every four years in the year after a presidential election by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.  The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sets detailed requirements for the plans.  NASA was given an extra year to produce its last version as the Obama Administration debated the agency’s future, so it was released in 2011 rather than 2010.

The document states NASA’s vision and mission and explains the agency’s core values, goals and priorities.

In this new version, NASA’s Vision is articulated as:

“We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”

NASA’s Mission is:

“Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.”

A comparison of the 2014 and 2011 strategic plans reveals few dramatic changes. Safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence remain the agency’s core values. The plan also reiterates sending humans to Mars as the agency’s long-term goal. The addition of the words “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement is a significant change, however, and appears to respond to criticism of the 2011 version by the NRC committee.

The 2014 plan identifies NASA’s proposed asteroid initiative, which includes the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) to redirect an asteroid into the Earth-Moon system for human exploration, as a step towards a human exploration of Mars.

Lack of widespread national and international support for an asteroid mission as the next step in human spaceflight, first proposed by President Obama in April 2010, was one of the findings of the 2012 NRC study that was written in response to concerns of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).  He chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and included language in NASA’s FY2012 funding bill requesting a study of NASA’s strategic direction with a specific look at NASA’s Strategic Plan.

The resulting NRC report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, concluded that “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.” The committee recommended that the Administration take the lead in forging a new consensus, establishing a new strategic plan to achieve it, and taking steps to address a crippling mismatch between the agency’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities and staff.

The NRC committee found the vision and mission statements in the 2011 strategic plan were too generic and did not convey how NASA uniquely contributes to national goals, adding to the “confusion about NASA’s overall strategic direction.”  In particular, it criticized the omission of the words “space” and aeronautics” from those statements since they delineate NASA’s responsibilities.

The new strategic plan responds to that critique by adding “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement. Previously it read “Drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.” The new vision statement does not include those words, but is more succinct than the 2011 version, which was phrased “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

The new strategic plan does highlight changes in the strategy development process. It emphasizes consultation with both internal and external stakeholders, “including Congress,” and describes actions the NASA Administrator has taken “to formulate a robust Agency strategy for implementation of the external guidance.”

In a letter introducing the 2014 strategic plan, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden states that “NASA’s vision of the future is clear.” Nevertheless, as recent congressional hearings have demonstrated, there is a persistent lack of consensus over next steps for NASA’s human spaceflight program and the state of affairs with respect to the agency’s future direction for human spaceflight, at least, is largely unchanged.

Note: Editor Marcia Smith was a member of the NRC Strategic Directions committee.

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