Is NASA a science organization or a technology one? Essential for bold future advancement or a conservative job works program afraid to push any boundaries?
Without a national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA, the agency cannot be expected to establish or work toward achieving long-term priorities, says a new report from the National Research Council - and they aren't doing it, which is why we have the confusion of President Obama canceling the Constellation program of President Bush so he could replace it with something having his name on it. As a result of politicization, there is a mismatch between the portfolio of programs and activities assigned to and requested by the agency and the budget allocated by Congress. Legislative restrictions that come with government largesse inhibit NASA from efficiently managing its personnel and infrastructure.
The White House should take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA's future in order to more closely align the agency's budget and objectives and remove restrictions impeding NASA's efficient operations - the same White House that canceled one program in order to announce its own.
But can a NASA that has so badly mismanaged the James Webb Space Telescope be responsible for managing itself? A cute robot on Mars can only take them so far in the eyes of the public.
"A current stated interim goal of NASA's human spaceflight program is to visit an asteroid by 2025," said Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the committee that wrote the report. "However, 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. The lack of national consensus on NASA's most publicly visible human spaceflight goal along with budget uncertainty has undermined the agency's ability to guide program planning and allocate funding."
The committee that authored the report was not asked to offer views on what NASA's goals, objectives, and strategy should be; rather it was tasked with recommending how these goals, objectives, and strategies might best be established and communicated.
The report recommends establishing a national consensus on NASA's future with the executive branch taking the lead after technical consultations with potential international partners. The strategic goals and objectives chosen should be ambitious yet technically rational and should focus on the long term, the report says.
To reduce the discrepancy between the overall size of NASA's budget and its current portfolio of missions, facilities, and personnel, the report says, the White House, Congress, and NASA, as appropriate, could pursue any or all of the following four options:
Regardless of the approach or approaches selected, the report recognizes that eliminating the mismatch will be difficult.
Because future human spaceflight or large-scale Earth and space science projects will likely involve multiple nations, the U.S. should explore international approaches to such projects, the report says. To do so, the U.S. must have a program that other countries want to participate in and must be willing to give substantial responsibility to its partners. The U.S. must also demonstrate its reliability and attractiveness as an international partner.