Expert panel: NASA seems lost in space, needs goal (Update)

NASA, the agency that epitomized the "Right Stuff," seems lost in space and doesn't have a clear sense of where it is going, an independent panel of science and engineering experts said in a stinging report Wednesday.

The one place the White House wants to send astronauts —an asteroid—doesn't seem to be getting the engines firing at NASA, they said.

"More than two years after the president announced the interim goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025, there has been little effort to initiate such a mission," said the report by a panel of the distinguished National Academy of Sciences.

In another withering passage, the panel said NASA's mission and vision statements are so vague and "generic" that they "could apply to almost any government research and development agency, omitting even the words 'aeronautics' or 'space.'"

The report doesn't blame the space agency; it faults President Barack Obama, Congress and the nation for not giving NASA better direction.

The space shuttles were retired in 2011 and are now museum pieces. Few people are paying attention to the International Space Station, and American astronauts have to rely on Russian spaceships to get there and back. Meanwhile, rocket-building is being outsourced to private companies, and a commercial venture plans to send people to the moon by the end of the decade.

Academy panel member Bob Crippen, a retired NASA manager and astronaut who piloted the first space shuttle mission, said he has never seen the space agency so adrift. He said that includes the decade between the end of the Apollo moon landings in the early 1970s and the beginning of the shuttle program.

"I think people (at NASA) want to be focused a little more and know where they are going," Crippen told The Associated Press.

NASA spokesman David Weaver defended the agency, saying in an emailed statement that it has clear and challenging goals. He listed several projects, including continued use of the International Space Station and efforts to develop a heavy-duty rocket and crew capsule capable of taking astronauts into deep space.

White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said he had nothing to add beyond NASA's comments.

Wednesday's report came the same day astronaut Scott Kelly, brother-in-law to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, talked about the difficulties of spending a U.S. record-breaking year in orbit aboard the space station starting in 2015. On Tuesday, just ahead of the report, NASA announced plans for a new Mars rover in 2020 in a sequel to the successful Curiosity mission.

John Logsdon, a space policy expert who advised the Obama campaign in 2008, said the panel's report, which is more strongly worded than usual for the academy, "rather fairly points its fingers at the White House."

"There's a general sense of disappointment that the administration has not been more bold and visionary in setting out a path for the program," said Logsdon, who was not on the panel.

Obama told the space agency in 2010 to plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a training ground for an eventual Mars landing. But the 80-page panel report and its authors said there is little support for that idea within NASA and the international space community.

The agency hasn't done much to determine an asteroid target, and its strategic plan avoids mention of an asteroid mission, the report said. Also, panel members said NASA hasn't allocated much money for it.

Crippen said an asteroid mission just doesn't make sense technically or politically and may just be too tough.

"I hate to use the word credible, but people don't buy it," said academy panel member Marcia Smith, president of Space and Technology Policy Group. "They don't feel that the asteroid mission is the right one."

The reason people aren't buying it is that they don't see money budgeted for it and don't see the choice of target, said panel chairman Albert Carnesale, former chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles. Inside NASA, "people were wondering: What are we doing to actually accomplish this?" Carnesale said at a news conference.

After the 2003 shuttle Columbia accident, the independent board investigating what wrong said NASA needed a bigger long-term plan for human exploration. Then-President George W. Bush announced that the shuttle would be retired and that NASA's new goal would be to return astronauts to the moon with a permanent base there as a stepping stone to Mars.

When Obama took office, he appointed an outside committee that said the moon plan wasn't workable. The committee offered several options, including an asteroid mission as a possible stepping stone to Mars. Obama chose that path.

Syracuse University public policy professor W. Henry Lambright, who wasn't part of the latest study but has written about space policy, said Obama has not sold NASA, Congress or the country on his plan.

"I really think it's Obama's fault," Lambright said. NASA "is suffering from benign neglect."

American University policy professor Howard McCurdy, who also wasn't on the panel, said he sees the problem more as a lack of money than a lack of goals.

The report said NASA does not have enough money for its too many projects and has difficulty managing its 10 centers efficiently.

In his statement, NASA's Weaver said: "We're fully utilizing the International Space Station; developing a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose crew vehicle capable of taking American astronauts into deep space; facilitating development of commercial capabilities for cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit; expanding our technological capabilities for the human and robotic missions of today and tomorrow; pursuing a robust portfolio of science missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope; developing faster and cleaner aircraft and inspiring the next generation of exploration leaders."

Smith said that statement itself shows the problem: "If it takes you that many phrases to explain it, then you do not have a crisp, clear strategic vision."

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Dec 05, 2012
An electromagnetic launch cannon or Startram is absolutely vital. The only way to develop space is to reduce the cost of getting there, if cost can be reduced by 99% things will progress rapidly.

Dec 05, 2012
President Barack Obama in 2010 told NASA to plan to send astronauts to a nearby asteroid.

Merely visiting an asteroid is a waste of money. A well built landing craft with a full range of instrumentation and the best nano-tech for analysis of samples, etc, is what would be needed for "exploration".

We don't need humans for mere "exploration" it costs too much to just go to a big rock in space and pick up a few surface rocks or core samples, and come back.

Even if you were going, you'd really want to install seismographs and stuff on a planet like mars, and telescopes and stuff on an asteroid, simply because it would be nice to have something with a known reference at a larger distance.

The amount of fundamental science actually being done by rover missions is pathetic given the cost.

If you want a "goal" for space you need to make efficient mining of space for commercial reasons the goal, but the current philosophy of our nation forbids government from owning business. cont.

Dec 05, 2012
Also, I think international treaties currently ban any nation from making a claim in space, which is a handicap on doing anything "worthwhile" besides launching a few one-off scientific instruments.

If the U.S. funded asteroid mining, companies could mine Gold and Platinum as primary income, and send other metals back as well. While the space-worthy instruments to do this don't entirely exist yet, some mining companies are already looking to this because the potential profits (in terms of dollars) are enormous.

Since our government can't operate a business directly, it should give grants and loans to mining companies to encourage them to develop this technology in tandem with NASA and private space companies. The government could tax the profits (later) to make enormous returns on the initial investment.

The scale of this operation is far beyond anything yet done in space, even for the smallest, closest target asteroids, but its the only thing profitable with our tech.

Dec 05, 2012
An electromagnetic launch cannon or Startram is absolutely vital. The only way to develop space is to reduce the cost of getting there, if cost can be reduced by 99% things will progress rapidly.

Most of the cost of going to space is fuel. A large portion of the fuel cost is unavoidable due to the minimum required kinetic energy to achieve escape velocity.

The other problem is the atmosphere, and to get around the atmosphere you'd need to launch craft from an altitude of at least similar to Mt. Everest to make a big enough difference to matter.

Your em cannon would need to be 7 or 8 miles tall, which may not be impossible, but is nearly inconceivable considering existing construction techniques.

Even in the 1km range, buildings require exotic concretes for their foundations, and many other technologies beyond ordinary construction.

Building this facility would cost so much it would take thousands of launches to pay for itself in energy savings, maybe even millions...

Dec 05, 2012
Fine guy, negative me if you like.

How do you think you're going to make a GUN to launch a shuttle or a cargo ship at 12km/s when the U.S. Navy is only just now been able to make an EM gun that can launch a small metal rod at 5km/s?

And oh yes, your computers and electronics will get destroyed by the magnetic field. I guess you didn't even bother thinking about that one yet. Not to mention the magnetic field for launching a ship would need to be so powerful it would probably kill any human passenger just from being anywhere near it.

Dec 05, 2012
Reasonable questions lurker: first you don't need 12 km/s rather 6 to 9 km/s, yes the navy is only just now developing effective railguns-let's keep going with that, effective magnetic shielding against already exists (permalloy&superconductors), electronics can be designed to withstand 100s of g forces and teslas, building the launcher up the side of a mountain (chimborazo)gains altitude and reduces atomspheric barrier. As for pilots the simpleist solution is to not put them in the cannon, most launched mass is equipment and supplies not human (the people can take rockets).
If the cost to launch continues to be $10000/kg space won't be devloped, an EM launcher could get the price down to $500/kg and looks like the best choise of the alternative launch strategies.
Wikipedia has some useful information, has some good material and the publications of professor Ian R. McNab are fascinating

Dec 05, 2012
I agree. NASA lacks a long term vision. It is comprised of engineers who need direction. From the top.

Dec 06, 2012
NASA's exploration of Mars is an amazing achievement and it has been scientifically productive-- and it costs a fraction of what would be required to send a man to Mars. This panel would be happier if NASA would be spending $100 billion to send astronauts to Mars to plant a flag and return to Earth.

Dec 06, 2012
building the launcher up the side of a mountain (chimborazo)gains altitude and reduces atomspheric barrier. - Why not start at the top and go down first to take advantage of gravity and then continue boosting up the other side?

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