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Report blasts NASA for 'lack of consensus' on goals, plans

Future of US space program said to be at risk

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A new US government report offers a damning assessment of the strategic direction and management of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), painting the space agency as a rudderless organization whose lack of well-defined goals could threaten US leadership in space sciences.

The report, titled "NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus", was produced by the National Research Council (NRC) at the behest of Congress, which in 2011 ordered a "comprehensive independent assessment of NASA's strategic direction and agency management" as part of its fiscal year 2012 budgeting process.

In it, the Council describes what it calls "a lack of national consensus" over even the most publicly visible of NASA's stated goals – a problem it says has been exacerbated by the dwindling budgets assigned the agency by Congress.

By way of example, the report cites NASA's lack of progress toward an eventual manned mission to Mars, which has ostensibly been the ultimate goal of the US human spaceflight program.

"This goal has been studied extensively by NASA and received rhetorical support from numerous US presidents, and has been echoed by some international space officials, but it has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage," the report says.

NASA's proposed objective of sending a manned mission to an asteroid as an interim step toward Mars has met with little support even within the agency, says Albert Carnesale of the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the NRC committee that wrote the report.

"We've seen limited evidence that this has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA's own work force, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community," Carnesale said in a statement, adding that lack of consensus over goals, objectives, and strategies has undermined the space agency's ability to guide program plans and allocate funds.

NASA's indecisiveness is even reflected in the 2011 NASA Strategic Plan, which the report says is "vague and avoids stating priorities." NASA's current vision and mission statements are ambiguous, the report notes, describing them as "generic statements that could apply to almost any government research and development (R&D) agency, omitting even the words 'aeronautics' or 'space'."

To address these problems, the report recommends that the White House take the lead in drafting a new strategic direction for NASA based on clear, specific goals, doing away with such vague objectives as "to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown."

Once these specific goals are established, the report says NASA should work closely with Congress to ensure it gets the funding it needs – or, as the NRC committee politely puts it, "to eliminate the mismatch between the overall size of the NASA budget and its current portfolio of missions, facilities, and staff."

Part of that process will likely involve instituting new regulatory and legislative reforms to give NASA greater flexibility in how it manages its personnel and facilities, the report says. (For "manages," read "aggressively restructures".)

Even then, however, there will be budgetary challenges. Given that a deadlocked Congress is currently hurtling toward the so-called Fiscal Cliff, the NRC report's most succinct suggestion – "increase the size of the NASA budget" – is likely to go unheeded.

On the other hand, given the scope of the challenges revealed in the report, another option it proposes – "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" – is sure to have the space program's foes in Congress sharpening their knives. ®

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