— A new report from the National Research Council warns that the near-term focus of NASA’s technology development efforts could jeopardize the agency’s longer-term space exploration goals.

The report, which was released Aug. 21, says NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate could be putting the long-term success of the agency’s space exploration plans at risk by concentrating its scarce technology development dollars on near-term needs.

The 118-page report, “A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Development Program,” says NASA appears to be investing in the right technologies needed to field a space shuttle successor and support early human exploration of the Moon. But due to limited budgets, the evolving nature of the Constellation Program’s requirements and a desire to fully employ the NASA work force, the
space agency has been shortchanging projects aimed at maturing the technologies needed for a sustained presence on the Moon and eventual manned expeditions to Mars.

NASA undertook $1 billion worth of human and robotic technology projects in 2004 following President George W. Bush’s call for the
United States
to build the spacecraft needed to return to the Moon by 2020. But that technology portfolio was scaled back dramatically starting in 2005 as NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sought to keep the development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher on track in the face of diminished budget projections.

“NASA has effectively suspended research in a number of technology areas traditionally within the agency’s scope, and has in many areas effectively ended support for longer term technology research, traditionally carried out within NASA and with strong university collaboration,” the report says. “This could have important consequences for those portions of the [Vision for Space Exploration] beyond initial short-duration lunar missions – including extended human presence on the Moon, human exploration of Mars, and beyond.”

The National Research Council found that 20 of the 22 exploration technology development projects NASA is funding could stand at least some improvement in their scope or the way they are being managed. The report also identified two gaps in NASA’s current technology development program, chiding the agency for not doing enough work on human health risk and human factor design considerations and not doing anything in the realm of nuclear thermal propulsion.

The report urges NASA to strike a better balance between near-term and long-term technology development needs and collaborate more closely with the broader research community.