There is no shortage of ideas of what NASA should be doing,
including sending robotic missions to asteroids to move them
into cislunar space (above). But is there any hope for
consensus on what, if anything, NASA should be doing
differently than it currently plans to do?
(credit: Planetary Resources)

What’s the purpose of a 21st century space agency?

by Jeff Foust
Monday, December 17, 2012

In Washington, there’s no shortage of groups offering advice, solicited and unsolicited, for policymakers. That’s certainly true in space policy, where there’s a long record of committees, organizations, and individuals assessing the nation’s civil space program and issuing conclusions and proposals for action, sometimes accepted, but more often ignored. It’s a well-known process: recommend a commission, commission a study, study its recommendations. Repeat as necessary.

There have been plenty of examples of this process in recent weeks. Early this month the National Research Council (NRC) released a congressionally mandated report assessing NASA’s strategic direction, offering a number of findings and options. There have also been other reports and discussions about what NASA should be doing, from a Congressional committee to an industry organization to a former astronaut. And the advice-giving cycle begins anew later this week with the first meeting of another NRC committee, this one to specifically examine NASA’s human spaceflight program.

This wave of advice comes at an interesting time for NASA. At first glance, the agency’s future appears to be status quo, given the results of the November elections that kept the Obama Administration in office for the next four years while maintaining the balance of power in Congress. At the same time, though, there is the threat of sequestration, with its across-the-board cuts for NASA and other agencies; even if those automatic cuts are avoided in the next two weeks, the space agency’s budgets for at least the near future are likely to be no larger than its most recent one. There’s also, as some recent events illustrate, a lack of enthusiasm about NASA’s goal of mounting a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. This raises a key question: what exactly is the role of a space agency like NASA, created during a Cold War competition that ended two decades ago, in today’s society?

Read more: The Space Review: What’s the purpose of a 21st century space agency?.

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