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National Research Council Reviews NASA's Strategic Direction

Aline D. McNaull
Number 17 - January 25, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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In 2011, Congress directed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Office of Inspector General to assess NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategies that were set forth in the 2011 NASA Strategic Plan.  NASA requested that this assessment be conducted by the National Research Council (NRC).  The NRC Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction was formed and was asked to address the relevance of NASA’s strategic direction as it relates to achieving national priorities, to examine the viability of these plans given the current economic conditions, and provide insight on the appropriateness of resource allocations among various NASA programs. The NRC was also charged with addressing NASA’s organizational structure to determine whether potential changes could be made to improve efficiency and effectiveness; lastly, they were tasked with determining “ways in which NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common unifying vision of the future that encompasses the agency’s full array of missions.”

The 67-page report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus was prepared by a 12-member NRC committee chaired by Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.  The committee made its recommendations following meetings with current and former NASA officials, officials from other relevant agencies, non-governmental experts on space policy, and representatives from the aerospace industry.  The committee visited the 10 NASA field centers and solicited input from the general public. 

The committee found that the vision statements for NASA in the 2011 Strategic Plan “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind” and the mission statement “to drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth” do not “articulate a national vision that is unique to the nation’s space and aeronautics agency.”  The committee found that the vision and mission statements “are generic statements that could apply to almost any government research and development (R&D) agency, omitting even the words ‘aeronautics’ or ‘space.’  NASA’s current vision and mission statements do not explain NASA’s unique role in the government and why it is worthy of taxpayer investment.”

The committee concluded that the 2011 NASA Strategic Plan is “vague and avoids stating any clear prioritization of the goals described therein.  In addition, the document is broad in scope and vague on details and does not have a clearly defined plan about how to achieve the agency’s goals and objectives.  Consequently, the strategic plan, as formulated, does not provide sufficient strategic clarity or the guidance that NASA will require as the agency deals with the technical, programmatic, and budgetary challenges that are likely in the next 10 to 50 years.”

Regarding the committee’s conclusions about NASA missions, they found that there is “little evidence that the current stated interim goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program – namely, to visit an asteroid by 2025 – has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community…. This lack of consensus on the asteroid-first mission scenario undermines NASA’s ability to establish a comprehensive, consistent strategic direction that can guide program planning and budget allocation.” 

Regarding Earth and space sciences, “the carefully crafted strategic planning process, with its priority setting and consensus building, that has led in the past to the United States leading the world, with science missions such as the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars and the Hubble Space Telescope, is now in jeopardy because it no longer may lead to a tangible program outcome.” 

In the area of aeronautics, the Committee found that “the full potential of the aeronautics program is not being achieved” because despite continued requirements for the development of these and other high-priority areas, “budget cuts have limited NASA’s role in solving these important problems.”  They noted that “the NASA aeronautics program historically has made important contributions to national priorities related to the US air transportation system, national defense, fuel-efficient air vehicles, and those portions of the space program that include flight through Earth’s atmosphere.”  

As for the recently established Space Technology Program, the Committee found that “the program is yet to be funded at the levels requested by the President’s budget,” but states that the program has “carried out a road mapping and priority-setting strategic planning process.”  

The committee examined the current NASA budget and determined that “it is mismatched to the current portfolio of missions, facilities, and staff.”  While NASA’s budget “has been remarkably stable at the top level for more than a decade… there has been some instability at the programmatic level and the out-year projections in the presidential budget request are unreliable, which makes it difficult for program managers to plan activities that require multi-year planning.”  Stretching programs in this manner “limits opportunities for NASA to develop and incorporate new technology into program architectures.”  Also, due to the current budget-driven approach of project planning, “intermediate milestones and completion dates for some programs have been delayed.  This in turn results in a lack of tangible near-term performance outcomes from cost-inefficient programs that only extend the lifespan of fixed and indirect costs.” 

The committee proposed four non-mutually exclusive options to address the mismatch between the NASA budget and the portfolio of missions, facilities, and personnel.  The committee presented these as options but “does not recommend any one option or combination of options but presents these to illustrate the scope of decisions and tradeoffs that could be made.” 

Option 1: “Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs to improve efficiency.”
Option 2: “Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other US government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners.”
Option 3:  “Increase the size of the NASA budget.”
Option 4:  “Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA’s current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile.  This would require reducing or eliminating one of more of NASA’s current portfolio elements (human exploration, Earth and space sciences, aeronautics, and space technology) in favor of the remaining elements.” 

NASA has numerous responsibilities in multi-agency activities that contribute to national priorities and which were highlighted in the NRC report.  These include NASA’s partnership with the Department of Defense on aeronautics and space sensors, space weather, and developing new launch vehicles.  NASA’s Earth and space science program partners with the National Science Foundation to work on research projects in the Antarctic and provide ground-based telescopes.  NASA coordinates with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to work on atmospheric science.  Also, NASA works with agencies involved with regulating and monitoring airspace including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.  The NRC committee recommends that NASA continue work with other US government agencies to “more effectively and efficiently coordinate US aeronautics and space activities.” 

While NASA has often assumed a flagship role in US innovation and technological and scientific developments, the NRC concluded that “NASA is now an agency at a transitional point.  The agency faces challenges in nearly all of its primary endeavors – human spaceflight, Earth and space sciences, and aeronautics – and these challenges largely stem from a lack of consensus on the scope of NASA’s broad missions for the nation’s future.”

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
amcnaull@aip.org
301-209-3094