United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner.
Despite decades of U.S. leadership and technical accomplishment, many of these elements are missing today. Abrupt changes in the goals the United States is pursuing for human spaceflight, coupled with concerns about U.S. unreliability in key international partnerships, can erode this country’s leadership position. The thrilling Mars Curiosity mission may be a testament to U.S. leadership in robotic space exploration today, but the sudden and dramatic proposed cut to the Mars exploration budget and withdrawal from the ExoMars program with Europe cast doubt on the future. Human spaceflight capabilities historically have served as a symbol of a country’s leadership in space. This multi-year period when the United States cannot launch humans into space, requiring reliance on Russia for access to the ISS, further undermines any claim to leadership despite the programmatic success of the development of the ISS, which is, in fact, led by the United States.
THE COMMITTEE ON NASA’S STRATEGIC DIRECTION
In late 2011, the Congress directed NASA’s Office of Inspector General to commission a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.” Subsequently, NASA requested that the National Research Council (NRC) conduct this independent assessment. In the spring of 2012, the NRC Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction was formed and began work on its task.
The statement of task for this study appears in Appendix A (and is summarized in the Preface). Notably, the committee was not asked to deliberate on what should be NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy; rather, it was asked for recommendations on how these goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated.
The committee has seen little evidence that a current stated 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. On the international front there appears to be continued enthusiasm for a mission to the Moon but not for an asteroid mission, although there is both U.S. and international interest in robotic missions to asteroids. This lack of national and international 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. While the committee did not undertake a technical assessment of the feasibility of an asteroid mission, it was informed by several briefers and sources that the current planned asteroid mission has significant shortcomings.
The asteroid mission is ostensibly the first step toward an eventual human mission to Mars. A human mission to Mars has been the ultimate goal of the U.S. human spaceflight program. This goal has been studied extensively by NASA and received rhetorical support from numerous U.S. presidents, and has been echoed by some international space officials, but it has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage. Such a mission would be very expensive and hazardous, which are the primary reasons that such a goal has not been actively pursued.
There also is no national consensus on what would constitute an appropriate mix of NASA’s capability-driven and mission-driven programs. While a capabilities-driven approach may be the most reasonable approach given budget realities, such an approach still has to be informed by a clear, consistent, and constant path to the objective.