“NASA is an exceptional institution in a tremendous predicament.” So begins the latest report to try and guide the space agency’s future. “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space”, released Tuesday by the Space Foundation, argues that NASA should be refocused on those activities on the leading edge of space, turning over other civil space functions either to other government agencies or the commercial sector.
What exactly is “pioneering”? The report describes pioneering as being the first to enter a region and developing infrastructure to open it up for others, and divides it into four phases: access, the logistics of getting someplace new; exploration, finding out what is there; utilization, making use of what is there for other purposes; and transition, handing over those activities to others and starting the process over again.
“A pioneering paradigm for a space program leads to the idea that the purpose of the space program is to incorporate the rest of the Solar System into the human sphere of influence,” the report states. “Pioneering is fundamentally an enabling and capacity-building activity.”
This approach is ultimately designed to give NASA a focus it has lacked for decades, Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham said at a Capitol Hill event Tuesday to roll out the report. “The fundamentals of managing a good organization don’t change from government to private enterprise,” he said. “Any world-class organization has certain attributes.” Specifically, he said such organizations have focused purposes, clear short- and long-term plans, and management controls and discipline.
The report includes a number of recommendations to give those NASA those attributes and make it a “pioneering” organization. Those recommendations include amending the Space Act to make pioneering the agency’s primary purpose, and to eliminate other, less relevant purposes. It also calls on streamlining the agency by divesting roles and associated infrastructure that no longer fit into that pioneering role, transferring them to other agencies or the private sector.
The report, though, stops short of identifying specific missions that should be divested, such as Earth sciences or aeronautics, two areas that some in the past have suggested be taken out of NASA. “We tried to avoid commenting on specific existing programs or specific destinations,” Pulham said when asked about that. “We think that once you’re focused on pioneering, it will become evident” what programs to focus on what what should be transferred.
The report also makes some managerial recommendations for NASA that have parallels to a recently introduced bill. The report calls on giving the NASA administrator a five-year term that can be renewed, and allowing the administrator to select his or her deputy administrator. It also calls for the creation of a “NASA commission” with members selected by the White House and Congress that would approve long-term plans that NASA would develop for submission to Congress. That’s somewhat similar to provisions of the Space Leadership Act introduced in September. In that legislation, a board of directors similar to the report’s commission would select three finalists for the positions of NASA administrator and deputy administrator for selection by the president; the administrator would then serve a ten-year term.
The report makes various other, more tactical, recommendations, including the development of a position of “chief executive” for space within the federal government separate from the position of NASA administrator. This person would be responsible for interagency coordination for various space issues, including the space industrial base. Pulham said they explicitly avoided calling this person a “space czar,” but joked he liked the title “Secretary of the Exterior.”
“What would we like to see as a result of this report?” Pulham asked. “I think we’d like to see a national dialogue that leads to NASA becoming a more successful agency than it already is.” That includes plans to brief members of Congress on the report and its recommendations.
This isn’t the only advice NASA and policymakers are getting, even this week. On Wednesday the National Research Council will be releasing its Congressionally-directed report on NASA’s strategic direction. “We are aware of other efforts looking into this. We have spoken to some of the people involved in those efforts,” Pulham said. It remains to be seen, though, whether any of the advice being offered to NASA will make a difference for the agency’s long-term future.