The National Research Council released on Wednesday its report on NASA’s strategic direction, as requested by Congress. The report was not an evaluation of what NASA’s goals should be, but instead an evaluation of NASA’s current strategy, as outlined in its strategic plan and related documents. And the committee found those plans lacking.
“There is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA,” the report states. “Absent such a consensus, NASA cannot reasonably be expected to develop enduring strategic priorities for the purpose of resource allocation and planning.”
“The 2011 NASA strategic plan and associated documents do not, in our view, constitute a strategy,” study chairman Albert Carnesale, a professor and former chancellor of UCLA, said in a telecon with reporters on Wednesday. The documents list NASA’s goals and programs, he said, “but there are no sense of priorities and no guidance for resource allocation, both of which would be essential to anything that would be called a strategy.”
One of the report’s biggest findings was that one of NASA’s biggest goals, sending a human mission to an asteroid by 2025, does not have widespread acceptance, even within NASA itself. “Despite isolated pockets of support for a human asteroid mission, the committee did not detect broad support for an asteroid mission inside NASA, in the nation as a whole, or from the international community,” the report stated.
“If you ask people in the bowels of NASA, in the field offices—and we spoke with everybody from the directors of each of the field offices to college interns and everybody in between—this is not generally accepted,” Carnesale said of the asteroid mission goal. “It hasn’t been explained to them why this is the goal.”
That lack of acceptance is for several reasons, he said. Some see a lack of a budget line item for such a mission, while others note no specific asteroid has been selected, and some others question wonder an asteroid is the most logical next step towards the long-term goal of a human mission to Mars. “It’s not generally accepted for those reasons, which is quite different from being refuted,” he added. “People don’t see it as, ‘Gee, it’s clear that’s where we’re headed.'”
“I do not want to imply that there was uniform belief that the asteroid mission was a bad idea,” he said later. “Rather, there was not a consensus that that really is the next step on the way to Mars.”
Other aspects of the report largely confirmed existing perceptions about NASA, including that there’s a mismatch between the programs assigned to the agency and its budget. The report offered several options to address this mismatch, including increasing NASA’s budget, reducing the number and size of its programs, performing “aggressive” restructuring of the agency’s infrastructure, and doing more international cooperation.
None of those options, though, are easy to accomplish. For example, Carnesale said there’s a widespread belief that NASA has too much infrastructure in the form of its ten field centers, but any major changes, such as closing one or more centers, would be politically difficult. He said the committee asked former NASA administrators if the current center structure made sense. Most, he noted, “decided relatively early in their tenure that it would take all of the political capital they had, and then some, to deal with that question, so they decided it was better to spend their time on something else.”