National disagreement over NASA's goals and objectives detrimental to agency planning

December 5th, 2012
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. In addition, there is a mismatch between the portfolio of programs and activities assigned to the agency and the budget allocated by Congress, and legislative restrictions inhibit NASA from more 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.

"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:
  • Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs and improve efficiency;
  • Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners;
  • Increase the size of the NASA budget;
  • Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA's current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile.
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.

Provided by National Academy of Sciences

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