Endeavour lands at Los Angeles International Airport, the last flight of a space shuttle orbiter.
What does NASA do now?

Wanted: A Strategic Direction for NASA

BY JOSEPH O’ROURKE
FEBRUARY 1, 2013

“It’s tricky to rock a rhyme
to rock a rhyme that’s right on time
It’s tricky… it’s tricky (tricky) tricky (tricky)”
–Run-D.M.C., “It’s Tricky”

Long-term planning is hard, especially in a democracy. America’s elected regimes have short residence times, as Presidents come and go and control of Congress swings back and forth between parties. But ambitious astronomy—the kind that rewrites textbooks—may take decades to plan and execute. Building a large telescope or sending a spacecraft to another planet, for example, requires policymakers to embrace a common goal and to stay the course for many years, shielding scientific workers from the shifting whims of politicians.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the largest individual sponsor of astrophysics and planetary science in the world, as discussed in our last romp through the landscape of science policy. Does NASA have a strategic direction that guides its priorities and activities?

Not a coherent one, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). An NRC committee, composed of experts from academia, government, and private industry, spent a year visiting every NASA field center, hearing testimony from policymakers and bureaucrats, and surveying the public. They concluded, “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA. Absent such a consensus, NASA cannot reasonably be expected to develop enduring strategic priorities.” Certainly, the uncertain future of human spaceflight causes most of this angst. But scientists struggle, too, against strategic realities that temper our dreams. The overall turmoil at NASA threatens the ability of scientific communities to prepare strategic plans.

Read more: Wanted: A Strategic Direction for NASA | astrobites.

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