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   FEBRUARY 2013


NASA at a Crossroads

By Chris Brantley

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) earned its reputation as one of America’s premier technology agencies by putting a man on the moon, and enhanced it with major engineering achievements such as the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, and more.

NASA’s Aging Facilities

NASA is the ninth largest Federal Government property holder, controlling approximately 4,900 buildings and structures with an estimated replacement value of more than $30 billion.  In addition, more than 80 percent of the Agency’s facilities are 40 or more years old and beyond their design life.  Under its current policy, NASA is required to maintain these facilities either in an operational status or, if they are not being used, in sufficient condition that they do not pose a safety hazard.  However, NASA has not been able to fully fund required maintenance costs for its facilities and in 2012 estimated its deferred maintenance costs at $2.3 billion.

Statement of Paul K. Martin, Inspector General, National Aeronautics and Space Administration before the Subcommittee on Oversight, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (28 Feb. 2013)

But in recent years, NASA’s budget has been severely constrained and its mission focus has become increasingly fragmented amongst numerous programs that compete for available resources. While nostalgic for the clear unifying vision of the moon missions and buoyed by the success of such recent science missions as the Curiosity Mars Rover, whose complex engineering survived the so-called “Seven Minutes of Terror” during the transition through Mars atmosphere, NASA observers are increasingly concerned that the agency is no longer able to sustain a robust and balanced space program within the current budget constraints, and that the United States is at risk of losing its leadership in space.

Recognizing this challenge, NASA commissioned the National Academies to do a study exploring NASA’s future. The National Research Council formed a committee, chaired by Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at University of California, Los Angeles, whose report was released on 5 Dec. and featured in a 12 Dec. hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The NRC report found that national disagreement over NASA’s goals and objectives has been detrimental to the Agency’s planning and budgeting efforts. Without a national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA, the NRC panel concluded the agency cannot be expected to establish or work toward achieving long-term priorities. In addition, they warned of a mismatch between the portfolio of programs and activities assigned to the agency and the budget allocated by Congress, as well as legislative restrictions that are inhibiting NASA from efficiently managing its personnel and infrastructure.

While noting that NASA’s stated human spaceflight goal is to visit an asteroid by 2025, Carnesale expressed concern that “we've seen limited evidence that this has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA's own work force, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community. The lack of national consensus on NASA's most publicly visible human spaceflight goal along with budget uncertainty has undermined the agency's ability to guide program planning and allocate funding.”

The NRC report calls for a national consensus on NASA's future with the executive branch taking the lead after technical consultations with potential international partners. The report also recommends four strategies, which could be pursued individually or in tandem:

  • Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs and improve efficiency;

  • Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners;

  • Increase the size of the NASA budget;

  • Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA's current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile.

The NRC report puts significant emphasis on international collaborations, noting that for such collaborations to be attractive, the U.S. must have a program that other countries want to participate in, must be willing to give substantial responsibility to its partners, and must demonstrate its reliability in terms of sustaining commitments over time

Hearing Highlights

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s 12 Dec. hearing used the NRC report as a framework to solicit input from a panel of space program experts on NASA’s strategic vision and the future of America’s space program.

Witnesses included former Congressman and Science Committee Chair Robert Walker, Ron Sega (former astronaut and former Undersecretary of the Air Force), Marion Blakey (President & CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association and former had of the Federal Aviation Administration), Thoma Zurburhen (University of Michigan) and Scott Pace, (Director of GWU’s Space Policy Institute).

Outgoing Science Committee Chair Ralph Hall (R-Texas) framed the hearing, noting that, “We are in a very challenging budget environment that will be with us for the next several years.” He added: “Fiscal realities demand that NASA become more efficient and sized correctly to accomplish its goals, but consensus will have to be re-established among the agency’s stakeholders to clarify NASA’s strategic vision, goals, and missions.”

Robert Walker testified that “NASA’s basic role must be to do projects that push the envelope of what we know. High risk will lead to new technologies. That combination of risk and reward will underpin the next generation of space knowledge and products.”

Walker said that “the reality is that no Federal budget in the foreseeable future is going to provide NASA with the money it needs to do everything we want it to do.” In order to fill this funding gap, Walker said “NASA must see entrepreneurship and enablement as key components of its science, technology and exploration programs. NASA can extend its reach and find new financial resources by opening its doors wide to collaborative programs that allow any and all American space entrepreneurs, willing to pay for it, access to NASA expertise.”

AIA President Marion Blakey encouraged NASA to invest in the goals represented in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010. “The resurgence in new human spaceflight system development is incredibly impressive: no other nation in the world is developing such a wide breadth of systems in the public and private sector,” Blakey said. “By building upon these successes with continued investment and policy support for the goals in the 2010 Act, the U.S. government can be assured its space program will remain worthy of a great nation.”

Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor for space science at the University of Michigan, urged NASA to focus on building and retaining experienced workforce and technology that will be necessary for more ambitious future goals. “We are in a period of limited resources, and so progress will be inevitably limited. This is an ideal time to position ourselves for better times,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. “The way to do this is to ensure that a talented work force will be available, and that innovations and technology are pursued, so that when we come out of this period of limited resources we are positioned to advance rapidly.”

Dr. Scott Pace, Ph.D, Director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University, said that: “Our Nation’s space program needs clear, decisive, and steadfast leadership. We have enjoyed a half-century of leadership in space, but now that leadership is eroding despite the hard work of our industry and government personnel. Yes, more money would be useful, but steadiness of purpose, coherence, and bipartisan support are even more important.”

A Safety Issue?

In related news, the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel’s 2012 Annual Report highlighted NASA’s program and budget mismatch as its highest safety concern. According to the panel, which was created by Congress after the Challenger disaster to highlight areas of emerging safety risk, NASA’s budget is the ‘elephant in the room’ both for commercial space and for longer-term exploration.”

The report concludes:For several years, there has been a significant gap between what NASA is attempting to do and what it is funded to do. This funding-planning mismatch, and in particular the uncertainty about future funding stability, has the potential to introduce new risks above and beyond those previously inherent in space travel.”


With budget sequestration looming and rising public concern about the accumulated federal budget deficit, it is hard to envision any increase in NASA’s federal funding in the foreseeable future. In fact, there will be considerable pressure to cut NASA’s budget. Sequestration alone could result in a reduction of nearly 8 percent in available resources.

At the same time, each of NASA’s major program areas — science, aeronautics, and human exploration — have strong political constituencies who will fight to preserve their share of the NASA budget pie. NASA facilities around the U.S. create jobs and help sustain local supplier and technology businesses in a number of congressional districts, whose representatives in Congress will fight to keep them open.

In the absence of a unifying vision and strong leadership from the White House and Congress to ensure resources are aligned with goals, NASA’s future will become increasingly linked to its success in building the international partnerships emphasized in the NRC report and by the hearing witnesses, as well as the agency’s ability to leverage its technical resources in entrepreneurial partnerships with the emerging commercial space industry.

For more information, see:

NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, National Research Council (5 Dec. 2012)
Online at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18248

The Future of NASA: Perspectives on Strategic Vision for America’s Space Program, Hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (12 Dec. 2012)

NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Annual Report for 2012,
Online at: http://oiir.hq.nasa.gov/asap/documents/2013_ASAP_Annual_Report.pdf


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


Chris Brantley is IEEE-USA's managing director in Washington, D.C.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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