WASHINGTON — Consolidating NASA’s sprawling network of field centers came to the forefront of discussions here between top agency officials and an independent panel established to carry out a congressionally mandated review of NASA’s structure and management.

NASA says its 10 field centers employ about 18,000 civil servants and four times as many contractors. These centers, some of which predate the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that created NASA, house a variety of specialized scientific and engineering facilities, many of which are underutilized today.

“I would be less than honest if I told you we need everything we have,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Committee to Review NASA’s Strategic Direction June 27. “We don’t.”

The ad hoc panel of the National Research Council (NRC) has its origins in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2012 (H.R. 2112), which funded NASA and other federal agencies. The law set aside $1 million for the NASA inspector general “to commission a comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.”

The inspector general delegated the task to the NRC.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which drafted the NASA portion of the legislation, made clear June 27 that he wants the panel to consider consolidation of the space agency’s field centers.

“I urge you to take a close look at the agency’s structure and facilities,” Wolf said in a letter to the committee’s chairman, Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles. “If NASA were being established today, how would it be structured and what would its priority programs be for the 21st century?”

Wolf also asked the committee to consider whether NASA administrators should serve 10-year terms — currently it’s a politically appointed post, meaning the administrator can be removed at any time — and whether NASA should submit its annual budget requests simultaneously to Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). NASA annual budget requests today are vetted by OMB before being delivered to Congress.

The June 25-27 meeting was the second of four Washington meetings planned by the NRC committee. The next is set for July 26, the last for Aug. 6. The group expects to deliver its final report to Congress Jan. 14.

The final report should “recommend how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision for NASA’s strategic direction that encompasses NASA’s varied missions,” the agency’s inspector general said in its directives to the panel.

“This is the first comprehensive look at all aspects of NASA’s programs, its institutional base [and] its organization that’s been carried out in a long time,” said John Logsdon, founder of and professor emeritus at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute here.

Logsdon compared the current review to that of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the United States Space Program, conducted in 1990 and chaired by Norm Augustine, who at the time was chief executive of Martin Marietta Corp.

Logsdon said concern over NASA’s institutional footprint “has festered really since the end of the Apollo program,” but that closing field centers is “politically hard.” NASA field centers are fiercely protected by the lawmakers in whose states and districts they are located.

Bolden’s deputy, Lori Garver, speaking to the committee June 25, offered a justification for maintaining idle and underused facilities.

“The private sector would be very efficient and probably not stay in business to operate as we do,” Garver said. “That being said, we’re not the private sector. NASA has capabilities that are unmatched around the world, so do we want to close these or not carry them because they aren’t 100 percent utilized on a program we know we’re doing now? Probably not, because there’s a risk there that you might need that capability in a few years.”

Still, Garver acknowledged that NASA’s infrastructure was designed to accommodate a level of program activity that does not exist today.

Speaking to the panel June 26, James Beggs, who ran NASA from 1981 to 1985 said, “There is too much institution for the program, and there is too much program for the budget. If we are stuck with a budget of the current size, $17 billion plus … then we’ve got too much institution for a long time and we’ve got to figure out a way to shut part of it down.”

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.