By Seth Borenstein
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — NASA is adrift without a coherent vision for where it should be going, an independent panel of space, science and engineering experts said in a stinging report issued Wednesday.
The report by the National Academy of Sciences doesn't blame the space agency; it faults the president, Congress and the nation for not giving NASA clear direction. At the same time, it said NASA is doing little to further the White House's goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid.
Panel member Bob Crippen, a retired NASA manager and astronaut who piloted the first space shuttle mission, said he has never seen the space agency so adrift. He said that includes the decade between the end of the Apollo moon landings and the beginning of the shuttle program.
"I think people (at NASA) want to be focused a little more and know where they are going," Crippen told The Associated Press.
NASA spokesman David Weaver said in an emailed statement that the agency has clear and challenging goals. He listed several projects, including continued use of the International Space Station and efforts to develop a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule capable of taking astronauts into deep space.
President Barack Obama in 2010 told the space agency to plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a training ground for an eventual Mars landing.
But the 80-page report from the national academy and its authors said that there is little support for that idea within NASA and the international space community. Also, NASA hasn't allocated much money for it. Nor has it done much to locate an asteroid target. The agency's vague strategic plan avoids mention of an asteroid mission.
After the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident, the independent board investigating what wrong said NASA needed a bigger long-term plan for human exploration. Then-President George W. Bush announced that the shuttle would be retired and that NASA's new goal would be to return astronauts to the moon with a permanent base there as a stepping stone to Mars.
When Obama took office, he appointed an outside committee that said the moon plan wasn't properly funded and wasn't sustainable. The panel offered a list of several options, including an asteroid mission as a possible stepping stone to Mars. Obama chose that path.
Crippen said an asteroid mission just doesn't make sense technically or politically and may just be too tough.
"I hate to use the word credible, but people don't buy it," said academy panel member Marcia Smith, president of Space and Technology Policy Group. "They don't feel that the asteroid mission is the right one."
The reason people aren't buying it is that they don't see money budgeted for it and they don't see the choice of target, said panel chairman Albert Carnesale, former chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles. Inside NASA, "people were wondering: What are we doing to actually accomplish this?" Carnesale said at a news conference.
Carnesale said he wouldn't use the word "adrift" to describe where NASA is, but three other panel members said it was an apt description. And the report said NASA's strategic plan "is vague and avoids stating any clear prioritization of the goals"
University of Chicago physicist Michael Turner, another panel member, said in an interview: "What we're trying to say if you read between the lines is, 'Yeah, they are adrift, but it took a village to get adrift because they don't set their agenda.'"
Syracuse University public policy professor W. Henry Lambright, who wasn't part of the study but has written about space policy, said Obama has not sold NASA, Congress and the country on his plan.
"I really think it's Obama's fault," Lambright said. NASA "is suffering from benign neglect."
NASA was also adrift after Apollo, but once then-President Richard Nixon decided to build a space shuttle, the agency had direction and that's not happening now, Lambright said.
American University policy professor Howard McCurdy, who also wasn't on the panel, said he sees the problem more as a lack of money than a lack of goals. NASA has seemed adrift for decades, he said.
The report said NASA does not have enough money for its too many projects and has difficulty managing its 10 centers efficiently.
In his statement, NASA's Weaver said: "We're fully utilizing the International Space Station; developing a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose crew vehicle capable of taking American astronauts into deep space; facilitating development of commercial capabilities for cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit; expanding our technological capabilities for the human and robotic missions of today and tomorrow; pursuing a robust portfolio of science missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope; developing faster and cleaner aircraft and inspiring the next generation of exploration leaders."
Smith said that statement itself shows the problem: "If it takes you that many phrases to explain it, then you do not have a crisp, clear strategic vision."