Congressionally Chartered NRC Panel Begins Top-level Review of NASA

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WASHINGTON — A panel of engineers, scientists and space policy experts gathered here May 2 to start work on a congressionally ordered review of NASA’s strategic direction were urged to shift the agency’s human spaceflight focus back toward the Moon.

Under spending legislation signed last year, the nine-member Committee to Evaluate NASA’s Strategic Direction must deliver its report to Congress by Nov. 15. The committee was organized by the National Research Council (NRC).

The committee has been asked to determine whether the marquee objectives NASA laid out in its 2011 strategic plan are feasible and, if they are not, what changes NASA should make. The plan called for an increased focus on technology development; a more robust Earth observation program; development of commercially operated crew and cargo spacecraft; and development of capabilities to enable human missions to near-Earth asteroids and Mars. The NASA goals established under President Barack Obama mark a departure from the previous administration’s call for NASA to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

In what the committee’s chairman, Albert Carnesa of the University of California, Los Angeles, called an unusual mandate for an NRC committee, reviewers were told they may suggest changes to NASA’s organizational structure.

Two space policy experts brought in to brief the committee urged the group to take a hard look at the Obama administration’s plans for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit.

“The administration’s focus on Mars and asteroids was exactly the wrong thing to do,” said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Whatever we do beyond low Earth orbit is going to be with international partners, so the obvious question is, what do the internationals want to do? What are they capable of doing? It quickly collapses down to [Earth-Moon] Lagrange points, Moon and low Earth orbit operations.”

Pace suggested NASA could put its international partners in charge of developing key elements of a Moon exploration program, such as a lander.

Pace, a former NASA associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation, worked at the agency when it still aimed to put an outpost on the Moon.

John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University who founded the Space Policy Institute Pace now runs, also endorsed a lunar return.

“An offshore island of the Moon is the right first destination, with lunar exploration and exploitation,” Logsdon told the committee.

A former White House official now working in industry remained agnostic about where NASA should send its astronauts, but urged committee members to clearly identify some destination.

“The concern I have now though is that there really is no goal in mind for exploration,” said Peter Marquez, vice president of strategy and planning for Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va. Without a clear destination, NASA will be caught up in “a budgetary tug of war and a political tug of war,” Marquez said.

Marquez, the former director of space policy for the White House National Security Council, helped write the 2010 U.S. National Space Policy.

The report the NRC committee is now working on was mandated in a 2012 appropriations bill funding NASA. The bill ordered NASA’s Office of the Inspector General to convene an independent review of NASA’s “strategic direction” and appropriated $1 million for the task. The inspector general’s office delegated the task to the NRC.

The language ordering the review originated in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) chairs the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that sets NASA’s annual budget.

One congressional staffer who attended the May 2 meeting cautioned the NRC panel that future NASA budgets are only likely to trend downward and that recommendations that required “a lot of unrealistic resources” would not be well received by Congress.

“In the interest of your time, keep the budget considerations in mind,” this staffer said.

 

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