WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 has yet to catch on at NASA’s regional field centers, where agency personnel detect a lack of budgetary commitment to a mission rife with unanswered technical questions, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC).

The report, “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus,” was written at the request of Congress and released Dec. 5.

“If you ask people down in the bowels of NASA, in the field offices — and we spoke to everybody from the directors to each of the field offices to college interns, and everything in between — this is not generally accepted,” Albert Carnesale, chairman of the NRC panel that wrote the report, told reporters during a teleconference. “There was not consensus that [an asteroid mission] was the next step on the way to Mars.”

Carnesale, chancellor emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles, said “technical people” at NASA field centers told members of the NRC’s ad hoc Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction that NASA has not yet picked an asteroid for crews to visit, nor determined the purpose of landing on such a body.

Obama in 2010 said that NASA should commit itself to sending astronauts to an asteroid around 2025 as a steppingstone to a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s.

“[A] presidential statement does not a consensus make,” Carnesale said Dec. 5. “It’s also true, as people observe the budget and say, ‘Now how does that reflect this goal of going to an asteroid?’ The answer, to a first approximation, is not at all.”

NASA, which had a $17.8 billion budget for 2012, is spending about $3 billion a year on the heavy-lift Space Launch System and companion Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. While this hardware could serve an asteroid mission’s transportation needs, the agency has not identified funding for a crew habitat and other systems that such a mission would require.

Carnesale led a panel of 11 scientists, engineers and policy experts who canvassed the country to gather input from current and former NASA officials on the agency’s strategic direction. The committee’s first meeting was held May 1 here.

The central theme of the NRC report is that NASA lacks the funding to execute all of the planetary science, astronomy, Earth observation, human spaceflight and aeronautics missions on its plate.

As James Beggs, NASA administrator from 1981 to 1985, said during the committee’s June 26 meeting here, “there is too much institution for the program, and there is too much program for the budget.”

Neither Carnesale nor the committee he led identified specific ways to reduce NASA’s operating expenses, or to bring the agency’s size, mission and  infrastructure into alignment.

However, the NRC report provided four options for the agency’s decision makers in the government to consider:

  • “Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs to improve efficiency.”
  • “Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners.”
  • “Increase the size of the NASA budget.”
  • “Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA’s current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile. This would require reducing or eliminating one or more of NASA’s current portfolio elements (human exploration, Earth and space science, aeronautics, and space technology) in favor of the remaining elements.”


NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...