NASA lacks coherent direction, says government report

A report sponsored by NASA has concluded that the agency is failing to inspire the world, the nation or even its own staff, and is unlikely to achieve long-term objectives such as a manned Mars landing.

In a report commissioned by Congress last year, the National Research Council also says that NASA’s budget doesn’t match up to its goals, and that legislative restrictions mean that NASA’s inefficient at managing its staff and infrastructure. The White House, it says, needs to re-examine NASA’s budget and free it up to operate more efficiently.

“A current stated interim goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program is to visit an asteroid by 2025,” says 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,”

Future strategic goals and objectives should be ambitious but technically achievable and should focus on the long term, says the report.

The panel gives the White House four options. It could embark on an aggressive restructuring program to cut infrastructure and personnel costs and improve efficiency; enter more cost-sharing partnerships with other US government agencies, private sector companies and international partners; increase NASA’s budget or make drastic cuts to its current program plans.

This latter option, says the report, would mean “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”.

Most important, though, is to establish a new consensus on NASA’s goals and objectives.

“Only with a national consensus on the agency’s future strategic direction — along the lines described in the full NRC report — can NASA continue to deliver the wonder, the knowledge, the national security and economic benefits, and the technology that have been typified by its earlier history,” say the authors.