Space Experts: NASA Is Dangerously AdriftPosted: August 30, 2013
In a call with reporters today, the founder and the current head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., painted a bleak picture for the future of NASA’s manned spaceflight program based on its current direction. Their comments came on the eve of Congressional authorization for the space agency’s budget.
“The sense of drift or the sense of lack of consensus is still fairly serious” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, said of the political debate over NASA’s course. Pace, who previously served as NASA’s Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation, was joined in a press conference today by John Logsdon, professor emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute.
“I think what you’re seeing in the current debate over priorities really is the residual of 40 years of a failure to reach consensus on what the U.S. should be doing in space and particularly in human spaceflight,” says Logsdon, who also served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003.
NASA’s manned spaceflight program arguably has been without a clear mission since Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972, carrying the last crew to leave low-Earth orbit. The space shuttle, conceived during the Nixon administration, “did not have a larger strategic purpose,” Pace says. “It was merely a capability.” He argues that this build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy still holds sway today. Now, as before, NASA’s focus is on building capabilities such as a new spacecraft and launchers and then figuring out that to do with them afterwards. “I feel like I’m listening to an echo from the Nixon administration,” he says.
The trouble with this operating philosophy emerges in the current congressional debate over the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, the first major debate over NASA’s direction since the Authorization Act of 2010. Two separate bills (one that passed the House and one the Senate) authorizing NASA’s budget must be resolved by the two houses of Congress into a single bill, hopefully by the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. The House bill reflects spending for NASA in compliance with the current budget sequestration, while the Senate bill does not. But no bill that Congress ultimately passes will provide enough money for both a new government-owned launch-vehicle-spacecraft combo and the maintenance of the International Space Station.
“There’s clearly not enough money in the long-term outlook to do both a robust exploration program and continue to utilize and operate the space station at a $3 billion a year level,” Logsdon says. One very real possible outcome of a continued scattered focus for NASA is the fiery death of the U.S. manned spaceflight program as the International Space Station reenters the atmosphere at the end of its service life in the 2020s and nothing rises to replace it.
What’s needed, Logsdon and Pace say, are not more proposals for one-off missions such as asteroidal return or a Mars mission. Even if completed, these missions will leave NASA again without direction afterwards. Logsdon argues that only a wider, over-arching statement of purpose for the program would get NASA back on course.
“What’s missing is a sense of strategy, of strategic purpose for the organization—what should it be doing,” he says. “That is the job of a national leader—is enunciating for NASA as well as other government agencies what it’s for, what its long-term and even midterm strategic purposes in terms of the national interest ought to be.”
A viable new direction for NASA, Logsdon and Pace say, will have to involve close cooperation with international partners—and that might in fact become its main rationale. “In terms of the expense necessary for actual utilization of space resources, placing people permanently in space—a human future in space—I don’t think that is going to happen as a unilateral U.S. activity,” Pace says.
“President Obama by now should have invited our international partners to work together in defining a future for the space program,” Logsdon says. “He has not done that. He should have given NASA some relatively crisp sense of what its role should be, and he hasn’t done that. That’s been very disappointing to me.”
That may leave the final frontier to more directed nations such as China. “I don’t worry about the Chinese being in space so much as I worry about us not being there,” said Pace. “We’re currently in a very, very fragile situation particularly as regards human spaceflight. It is not at all inevitable that human spaceflights will continue as we look in the years ahead.”Source: Popular Mechanics – Space Experts: NASA Is Dangerously Adrift
- Was NASA Serious about Trying to Rescue Skylab? (launiusr.wordpress.com)
- China steps up the space race: lunar probe this year (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Can the International Space Station Really Last Beyond 2020? (space.com)
- NASA Flooded with Asteroid Exploration Ideas. #NASAasteroid (prizesandchallenges.wordpress.com)
- Will the ISS really last beyond 2020? (tobiasbuckell.com)
- NASA visualizes asteroid capture plan (gizmag.com)
- NASA Flooded with Asteroid Exploration Ideas (space.com)
- NASA’s mission improbable (washingtonpost.com)
- NASA captures natural disasters from space (kvue.com)