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Posted at 10:17 AM ET, 12/06/2012

Whither NASA?: Agency’s strategy, mission and vision lack clarity, expert panel finds


The NASA logo is seen on the outside of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. (Andrew Harrer - BLOOMBERG)
Two years ago, President Obama told a crowd of more than 200 people assembled in Cape Canaveral, Fla., that a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025 would be among one of NASA’s goals. But a scathing report released Wednesday shows that, among other issues within the agency, NASA’s not really doing much in the way of making it so.

The National Research Council report — commissioned by NASA at the behest of Congress — finds that “there has been little effort to initiate” the asteroid mission. The report also found the agency’s overall mission and vision statements to be “generic” and that both statements could “apply to almost any government research and development (R&D) agency.”

The NRC convened a 12-person committee in spring 2012 to assess the agency’s strategic direction, with a focus on NASA’s 2011 strategic plan. It found NASA to be “an agency at a transitional point” and one that “faces challenges in nearly all of its primary endeavors,” including human space flight. The committee was not charged with determining what the agency’s strategic objectives should be. Ultimately, the committee found NASA’s 2011 plan to be “vague on details” and “of little value from the perspective of establishing clear and unifying strategic directions for NASA.”

Ouch.

But the committee also found that the responsibility for that lack of clarity does not fall entirely at NASA’s feet. The executive and legislative branches, they concluded, bear some responsibility for failing to clearly establish the nation’s overall goals and priorities. Committee chairman and UCLA Chancellor Emeritus and professor Albert Carnesale said during a news conference Wednesday that, in terms of human space flight, it was currently unclear whether the priority was an asteroid, the moon or Mars.

“If you look at what the administration says and look at what Congress says and look at the strategic plan,” said Carnesale, “it is not clear what the priorities are.”

Without that guidance, the committee determined the agency “cannot reasonably be expected” to put together an effective strategy, read the report.


The Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-115) undocks from the International Space Station in this NASA handout photo dated Sept. 17, 2006. In the wake of the shuttle program, an expert report finds NASA’s mission and vision statements to lack clarity. (NASA - REUTERS)
In response to the report, NASA Associate Director David Weaver said via a statement that the agency “appreciate[s] the hard work” of the committee and “look[s] forward to a closer review of its recommendations.

“The President and Congress, in bi-partisan fashion, established the nation’s strategic goals for civil space when it enacted the NASA Authorization Act of 2010,” he continued, listing the many projects NASA had in progress. “The agency will continue to prioritize its work to achieve these national goals and carry out the direction of Congress and the White House.”

The committee also found a “mismatch” between the agency’s budget and its portfolio of missions and resources.

“NASA plays with the one variable that it has control over: time,” said Carnesale.

To avoid cost overruns and keep projects within reasonable time frames, the committee recommended four options: aggressively restructure the agency, comit to more cost-sharing partnerships with the private sector and other countries, grow NASA’s budget, or reduce the size and scope of its mission portfolio.

The report also recommended against applying a “one-size-fits-all” policy in an attempt to institute change. The agency’s 10 centers, including Goddard, Kennedy and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, were all determined to be so unique that pursuing a uniform plan could potentially “do more harm than good.” Instead, the committee recommended that The White House and Congress adopt reforms to give NASA improved flexibility in its management of the centers, and advised NASA to integrate the centers around the agency’s strategy and objectives.

News of the report comes a day after NASA officials announced plans for a new Mars rover to launch in 2020 — a project that is expected to cost roughly $1.5 billion. The mission’s final details have yet to be worked out, but it may include the cachingof samples from Mars for eventual return — a capability the Mars rover Curiosity does not have.

Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.

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