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Strengthen NASA’s Strategic Direction, Experts Urge House Panel

The Earth as seen by NASA Apollo astronauts. Photo Credit/NASA Photo

NASA is in need of more effective strategic guidance from the White House and Congress, as both arms of government address the nation’s budget problems, outside experts cautioned the House Science Space and Technology Committee on Wednesday.

The hearing focused in part on a new National Research Council study, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. Released last week, the study requested by Congressional appropriators calls for stronger top level direction to deal with a long standing mismatch between the agency’s resources and its human space exploration, space science, Earth studies, and aeronautics programs.

“Without a consensus, the agency cannot be expected to develop or work effectively toward long term programs,” said Ron Sega, the former Pentagon official and NASA astronaut  who co-chaired the study by the NRC, a Congressionally chartered think tank.

Aerospace experts urge strong strategic guidance for NASA. Photo Credit/House Science Space and Technology Committee

The NRC study found a lack of support within the space agency itself as well as the public for NASA’s most visible goal, reaching a near Earth asteroid with explorers by 2025, as a stepping stone to Mars.

Like the rest of the federal government, NASA is operating on a “Continuing Resolution” based on its 2012 budget of $17.7 billion, rather than a 2013 spending plan. The annual level is down from $18.4 billion in 2011. The most recent budget forecast shows no change in annual spending through 2017. But a sharp and sudden reduction is possible if Congress and the White House cannot resolve the looming “fiscal cliff.”

NASA’s current strategic difficulties can be traced to the cancellation of the Constellation Program, the back to the moon initiative developed by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of the 2003 shuttle Columbia tragedy, testified Scott Pace, a George Washington University space policy analyst and former NASA official.

Constellation was to guide the development of a human lunar base in the next decade and drive capabilities leading to the human exploration of Mars in the mid-2030s.

However, Constellation was cancelled by President Obama after a White House sponsored study found the initiative could not be sustained with projected budgets. The cancellation and 2011 retirement of NASA’s shuttle program triggered thousands of job losses along with concerns over a clearly defined mission for the agency beyond the International Space Station.

AU. S.led, 15 nation partnership plans to continue station activities through 2020.

After taking office in 2010, Obama directed NASA to focus on a human mission to a yet to be designated asteroid by 2025, using the Orion capsule and Space Launch System.

The objective was a compromise struck between the White House and Congress, which argued for Orion, a surviving component of Constellation and the SLS, a heavy lift rocket derived from shuttle elements.

Obama envisioned human missions to the Martian environs in the mid 2030s and surface expeditions later.

“The current agreement, if it can be called that, is not a consensus, as much as it is a compromise,” saidU. S.Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican who chairs the House science panel.

Without a strong consensus for its major activities,  NASA is vulnerable as an agency, he cautioned.

“We can’t go to Mars until we can go to the grocery story,” said Hall. “In other words, it’s about the economy.”

He found agreement from U. S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the panel’s ranking Democrat, also fromTexas. She stressed NASA’s role in fostering a stronger economy.

“We forget at our peril the hard reality that investments in research and development such as the range of projects carried out by NASA  are just that, investments in our nation’s future and the future or our children,” said Johnson.

A second study released last week by The Space Foundation, a non profit group supported by U. S.aerospace companies and others involved in exploration, urged NASA to re-embrace its roots by adopting a  “pioneering” theme as its chief objective.

As it opens new frontiers, NASA will create new economic opportunity, according to the Colorado-based group.

“No budget in the foreseeable future will provide NASA with all of the funding it needs to do whatever we want NASA to do,” Robert Walker, a former chairman of the House science panel, told the lawmakers.

He suggested revisions in legislation that could permit NASA to accept private sector endorsements for its programs, much as NASCAR, the National Football League and other major sports organizations do.

“When the Go Daddy rover is traversing Martian terrain, we will be more solidly on our way to fulfilling our destiny to the stars,”Walkersuggested.

Changes ahead for NASA could mean new alliances with the private sector, the agency’s international partners and academia to broaden financial support,Walkerpredicted.

Others might prompt restructuring of NASA’s nationwide collection of field centers, he said.

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