2011 was a challenging year for NASA and for the space science research communities. Last year, I made the following remarks in the introduction to Space Studies Board Annual Report 2010:
Never has there been a more complete assessment of NASA space sciences. Never have so many labored so much and so well on strategies whose chances of realization were more uncertain than now…. [NASA’s] programs are caught in a self-reinforcing budgetary spiral. The profound changes taking place in the human exploration program make it difficult for the agency to set internal priorities, though there is an effort to protect science. The general need to reduce the federal budget deficit makes NASA’s financial outlook uncertain at best and most likely bleak. Finally, NASA’s costs for large programs are inflating with unanticipated speed.
In some ways things have only got more uncertain in 2011. Not all of NASA’s problems are of its making. Many people outside Washington may be able to view with a certain detachment the profound political conflicts paralyzing action and rending human relationships within the Beltway, but the human beings in NASA headquarters cannot. When Congress is in session, there is a palpable change of atmosphere in Washington—a tension in the air—at the best of times, and the aware NASA administrator has to be sensitive to it. To last year’s worries about the overall budgetary trend, 2011 added indecision and disagreement over how to manage the growing national debt.
The science community remains ready to go out of its way to support NASA as it faces the decisions it must make, despite the continuing uncertainty. Yet, there are those who state that there was no point in even asking our community for its advice until the government settled on a basic approach to debt reduction. It has not, and, at the time of writing, there is still no clear sense of what NASA can expect in the years to come.
All this raises important questions about the role of the Space Studies Board. People in and out of NASA are searching for a sense of overall direction for NASA. Some in Congress have turned to the National Research Council (NRC) for help, and, indeed, in 2012 the Space Studies Board will participate in such efforts. We know how important they could be. While the initiation of a study on the long-range goals and direction of the human spaceflight program has taken longer than we in the SSB and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board might have anticipated, at the end of 2011 we made progress, and we are hopeful that in the 2012 annual report we can report on the status of that study.