Years of trying to do too many things with too little money have put NASA at risk of ceding leadership in space exploration to other nations, according to a new report that calls on the space agency to make wrenching decisions about its long-term strategy and future scope.
As other countries — including some potential adversaries — are investing heavily in space, federal funding for NASA is essentially flat and under constant threat of being cut. Without a clear vision, that fiscal uncertainty makes it all the more difficult for the agency to make progress on ambitious goals like sending astronauts to an asteroid or Mars while executing big-ticket science missions, such as the $8.8-billion James Webb Space Telescope, says the analysis released Wednesday by the National Research Council.
"These problems are not primarily of NASA's doing, but the agency could craft a better response to the uncertainty," wrote the report's authors, a group of 12 independent experts led by former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale. "If the United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner. Despite decades of U.S. leadership and technical accomplishment, many of these elements are missing today."
The report, commissioned by NASA at the behest of Congress, said the agency lacked a long-range agenda that enjoyed widespread support from government and the public. The authors also made plain that many of the problems boiled down to money.
"NASA cannot execute a robust, balanced aeronautics and space program given the current budget constraints," it warns. "There is a significant mismatch between the programs to which NASA is committed and the budgets that have been provided or anticipated. ... This mismatch needs to be addressed if NASA is to efficiently and effectively develop enduring strategic directions of any sort."