This is Al Shepard on Apollo 14. We can’t do this anymore. photo: NASA

Report: NASA is broken and it’s up to us to fix it

NRC cites lack of money, vision, direction—then gives the US public a choice.

by Lee Hutchinson – Dec 6 2012, 3:50pm EST

In 2011, NASA commissioned the National Research Council to put together a report to serve as a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.” That report, released yesterday, reads as a damning litany of what’s wrong with one of the United States government’s crown jewels. NASA, for all its accomplishments over the past fifty years, is a sinking ship.

Altogether, the report lists four primary areas that should be NASA’s focus: manned spaceflight, Earth and space science, aeronautics, and technology development. The lack of focus in the manned space program is obvious to even casual observers, but the report also highlights serious issues in both funding and direction across the board at NASA, affecting the other focus areas as well.

The report brings up the recent Mars Science Laboratory program as a benchmark achievement, while at the same time pointing out that many other Earth and space science missions previously targeted as priorities are being set aside due to funding problems. The withdrawal from the ExoMars partnership with the European Space Agency clouds the agency’s robotic future, even as Curiosity rolls triumphantly around on the surface of Mars, happily zapping things and making discoveries.

The reasons for the shortcomings are discussed at length, but they all can be characterized as failures in leadership. The report paints the picture of an agency crippled by the whims of politicians holding the purse strings:

“Numerous times the agency initiated new programs with the expectation that budgets would increase to support them (a basic requirement for optimizing any development program’s budget), only to have no increases emerge. Taken in aggregate, this situation has been wasteful and inefficient. Even leaving aside the funding requirements for large procurements, it is tempting to assume that if NASA officials knew to expect a flat budget they could plan better, but in several recent cases they were told (even required) to expect funding that never ultimately emerged.”

On one hand, NASA’s funding remains relatively stable. “The funding for NASA’s total budget has been remarkably level in constant-year dollars for more than a decade,” notes the report. On the other hand, continual shifts in agency direction have negated much of the benefit of that funding:

“However, there has been some instability at the programmatic level and the out-year projections in the President’s budget are unreliable, which makes it difficult for program managers to plan activities that require multi-year planning. Put another way, although the budget may have been level over time, NASA experienced substantial program instability over the same period.”

Read more: Report: NASA is broken and it’s up to us to fix it | Ars Technica.

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