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December 05, 2012

National Research Council Calls for NASA to Refocus and Reorganization

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


NASA can't be expected to do its job unless there's a national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for the agency, says a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). In addition, there's a "mismatch" between the programs and activities assigned to the agency and the budget it gets from Congress, with legislative restrictions inhibiting NASA from more efficiently managing its personnel and infrastructure.

Plans for a manned mission to visit an asteroid in 2025 are criticized in NRC's statement announcing the report, "NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus."

"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 White House should take the lead in "forging a new consensus" on NASA's future in order to align the agency's budget and objectives and remove restrictions impeding efficient operations. Strategic goals and objectives for the agency should be ambitious yet technically rational, says the report, and should focus on the long term.

Congress, NASA, and the While House could pursue any or all of four options to "reduce the discrepancy" between the overall size of NASA's budget and its current portfolio of missions, facilities and personnel, the report says. An aggressive restructuring program could be instituted to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs and improve efficiency. Commitments to long term cost-sharing partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, the private sector and international partners are recommended. Reducing the size and scope of elements of NASA's current program portfolio are recommended to better fit its current and anticipated budget profile. There's also a recommendation to increase the size of NASA's budget, but that's probably a non-starter under the current fiscal environment.

International cooperation gets a big plug for future human spaceflight and "large-scale" Earth and space science projects.   The U.S. should explore international approaches, but it has to have a program that other countries want to participate in, but it must also "demonstrate its reliability and attractiveness" as an international partner.

The findings are likely to get a lot of discussion among the space wonk crowd and Capital Hill staffers. With the "fiscal cliff" looming, reducing NASA's budget further is quite tempting. Aerospace companies have quietly called for a "BRAC" style reorganization of NASA research centers to reduce overhead, while Neil deGrasse Tyson called for doubling NASA's budget in his latest book.

However, the White House is, as a former president would say, "The Decider" in NASA changes. The Obama Administration has held up an asteroid mission in 2025 as a stepping-stone goal to reaching Mars. Findings in this report would give the White House cover to drop the goal and potentially cut the expensive Orion space capsule and Space Launch System (SLS). Opening up space cooperation with China as a strategy to reduce costs also might be a possible outcome.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman



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