NRC: No National Consensus on NASA Strategic Plans; Asteroid-First Mission Not Deemed Compelling

NRC: No National Consensus on NASA Strategic Plans; Asteroid-First Mission Not Deemed Compelling

An ambitious congressionally-mandated study of NASA’s strategic plans and ability to achieve them, released today, describes a grim state of affairs that, if not corrected, threaten U.S. continued leadership in space.

In NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction responded to a congressional mandate in the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations act to assess the evolution and relevance of NASA’s goals, objectives and strategies and the agency’s ability – in terms of organizational and budgetary resources – to achieve them. It is of note that “the committee was not asked to opine on what should be NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy,” as the NRC report states.

The committee, chaired by the University of California’s Albert Carnesale, concludes that  “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.” This comes as no surprise to many in the space community and neither does the fact that the report highlights persisting program instability, uncertainty in the agency’s future goals or a dramatic limitation of funds as key drivers for this situation. What is surprising, instead, is the conclusiveness with which it states that the current state of affairs is unique and particularly threatening to the future success not only of the agency, but also of the U.S. space program as a whole.

According to the report, the agency is “at a transition point in its history” and faces “a set of circumstances that it has not faced in combination before.” In fact, in the committee’s assessment, this combination of issues such as the perception of unreliability abroad and an aging infrastructure, could lead to the erosion of U.S. leadership in every element of NASA’s portfolio, including in Earth and space science and aeronautics.

The committee finds that: “If the United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner.”

Noting the absence of a national consensus and a lack of evidence that a human mission to an asteroid “has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community,” the committee recommends that the Administration take the lead in forging a new consensus, one that engages international partners, and that the agency establish a new strategic plan to achieve it. It also recommends that future plans and legislative funding actions take steps to eliminate the current mismatch between the agency’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities and staff. While not endorsing any specific solution, the committee describes four dramatic courses of action that U.S. leadership could take to address this mismatch.

It is yet early to tell what reception this report will have on Capitol Hill and with an Administration preparing to begin its second term.  But to judge by the findings and recommendations contained in this report, the decisions made in the next several months may lead to dramatic changes in the U.S. space program.

Note: editor Marcia Smith was a member of this committee.

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