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Space Foundation, National Research Council Call for Bolder Course for U. S. Space Exploration

The outside advice directed at NASA and theU. S.civil space program came in waves this week, just as the space agency was unveiling changes to its Mars exploration program, including plans for the launching of a second Curiosity class rover in 2020.

Apollo 11 skipper Neil Armstrong pauses after humanity's first walk on the moon. Photo Credit/NASA Photo


An earlier Space Coalition blog summarized findings from the U. S. National Research Council, outlined in a lengthy report sought by NASA’s Congressional appropriators that found the space agency in need of better strategic direction from the White House and Congress. Under funded for its many space and aeronautics missions, NASA’s stated goal of exploring an asteroid with human explorers by 2025 and eventually Mars has failed to generate public enthusiasm, according to the NRC’s 80 page report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus

The non profit Space Foundation urged the 54-year-old space agency to re-embrace founding principles in an equally blunt 70 page report, Pioneering: Sustaining U. S. Leadership in Space.

The two documents share a common theme: change is in order, if the U. S. is to sustain and widen its global lead in the exploration of space.

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, December 1972, the last human to stand on the moon. Photo Credit/NASA Photo


The Space Foundation, headquartered in Colorado Springs and supported by the nation’s top aerospace companies, space entrepreneurs, telecommunications companies, educational organizations and media, urged policy makers to focus NASA on pioneering as its “its singular, compelling purpose,” while “transitioning non-pioneering activities to other government and private sector organizations.”

That would mean separating NASA from its responsibilities for “all things space.” The agency’s coast to coast infrastructure would be re-evaluated for its fitness to carry out a pioneering mission.

NASA’s administrator would serve a renewable 5-year appointment and select his or her own nominee for deputy administrator. The agency’s chief would work with a 12 member commission, whose members are selected by the president, Congressional majority and minority leaders as well as Congressional oversight panels.

The NASA chief would follow the objectives outlined in a 10 year plan and a broader 30-year strategic blueprint. Congress would look to options for funding NASA and its objectives.

“Our research revealed that NASA is struggling to find its way as a result of years of circumstance and mixed signals from political leadership. But, the fundamental issue is the muddled — or non-existent — understanding of why NASA exists and what it should be doing,” noted Elliot Pulham, the Space Foundation’s chief executive.

Both reports sounded a troubled note that theU. S.has had no means of launching its own astronauts into space since the shuttle fleet was retired in July 2011. With favorable budgets that capability will not return until 2017, when NASA expects from among itsU. S.commercial crew partners to begin launching astronauts to the International Space Station.

Atlantis heads for retirement following NASA's final shuttle flight in July 2011. Photo Credit/NASA Photo


NASA’s own spacecraft, the Orion, is not expected to launch with astronauts until 2021. They’ll blaze a trail riding atop the new Space Launch System, a powerful launcher that would start U.S. explorers toward that first asteroid encounter and perhaps into the Martian environs a decade or so later.

The Space Foundation and NRC reports, released Dec. 4 and 5, were distributed among lawmakers and policymakers, some of them preparing to move on in the aftermath of the U. S. presidential election in November. Others will be joining the policy making process with new food for thought on space exploration thanks to the NRC and the Space Foundation.

According to the Space Foundation,  “pioneering” embraces a multi-part definition: being among those who first enter a region to open it for use and development by others; and being one of a group that builds and prepares infrastructure precursors, in advance of others. The Pioneering Doctrine has four phases: access, exploration, utilization, and transition.

Restrictive federal budgets forced NASA to withdraw from a partnership with the European Space Agency for the  European-led Exo-Mars initiative, an ambitious effort to launch missions in 2016 and 2018 that would set the stage for an eventual Mars soil and rock sample return mission, a high priority of those involved in the NRC’s decadal survey process.

NASA responded with plans for MAVEN, a mission that will study the Martian atmosphere, and InSight, a mission that will study the structure of the Martian interior. The launches in 2016 and 2018 will rely largely on heritage Martian hardware, easing schedule and budget pressures on NASA.

Artist's illustration of NASA's Mars Curiosity rover. Image Credit/NASA


This week, the agency added the 2020 launch of a second Curiosity rover for additional exploration of the Martian terrain.

The original touched down in Gale Crater on Mars in early August, invigorating followers from around the world. The landing marked a dramatic start to Curiosity’s two-year search for signs the Martian environment was once suitable for microbial life.





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