The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is at a transitional point in its history and is facing a set of circumstances that it has not faced in combination before. The agency’s budget, although level-funded in constant-year dollars, is under considerable stress, servicing increasingly expensive missions and a large, aging infrastructure established at the height of the Apollo program. Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centerpiece of NASA’s spectrum of mission areas. The lack of national consensus on NASA’s most publicly visible mission, along with out-year budget uncertainty, has resulted in the lack of strategic focus necessary for national agencies operating in today’s budgetary reality. As a result, NASA’s distribution of resources may be out of sync with what it can achieve relative to what it has been asked to do.
NASA now faces major challenges in nearly all of its primary endeavors—human spaceflight, Earth and space science, and aeronautics. While the agency has undertaken new efforts to procure commercial transportation to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) and has also initiated an effort to commercially procure crew transportation as well, the agency currently lacks a means of launching astronauts on a U.S. spacecraft to Earth orbit, where the agency operates the ISS, which was built at considerable time, effort, and expense.
Although gaps in U.S. human spaceflight capability have existed in the past, several other factors, in combination, make this a unique period for NASA. These include a lack of consensus on the next steps in the development of human spaceflight, increasing financial pressures, an aging infrastructure, and the emergence of additional space-capable nations—some friendly, some potentially unfriendly. In addition, U.S. leadership in space science is being threatened by insufficient budgets to carry out the missions identified in the strategic plans (decadal surveys) of the science communities, rising cost of missions, decreasing science budgets, and the collapse of partnerships with the European Space Agency (ESA)— this at a time when others (most notably ESA and China) are mounting increasingly ambitious space programs. Finally, NASA’s aeronautics budget has been reduced to the point where it is increasingly difficult for the agency to contribute to a field that U.S. industry and the national security establishment have long dominated.
These problems are not primarily of NASA’s doing, but the agency could craft a better response to the uncertainty, for example, by developing a strategic plan that includes clear priorities and a transparent budget allocation process. A better response would improve NASA’s ability to navigate future obstacles and uncertainties. An effective agency response is vital, because at a time when the strategic importance of space is rising and the capabilities of other spacefaring nations are increasing, U.S. leadership is faltering.
For the United States to be a leader in space, as required by the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, it must be a country with bold ideas, science and engineering excellence, and the ability to convince others to work with it in the pursuit of common goals. Leadership depends on the perception of others that whoever is in the lead knows the way forward, is capable of forging the trail, and is determined to succeed despite inevitable setbacks. It does not mean dominance. Those who join are partners, not followers, and partnerships must be equitable, with all voices being heard.
Leadership is more nuanced today than during the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union over which country would achieve the next space “first.” Countries that once depended on partnerships with the United States to execute their space programs now have other choices, including going it alone. If the
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.
EARTH AND SPACE SCIENCE
NASA has clearly demonstrated the success of the strategic planning process for Earth and space science that is founded on the NRC’s decadal surveys (NRC, 2007; a decadal survey on life and microgravity science [NRC, 2011a] has also been produced for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate). The decadal survey process has matured into a robust method for developing a set of goals and objectives for various programs that are based on a community consensus on an achievable suite of science programs in pursuit of high-priority, compelling science questions. However, even the best strategic plan is vulnerable to severe changes in the assumptions that underlie its development, whether those changes are applied internally or externally. As an example, the recent set of surveys on astronomy and astrophysics (NRC, 2010) and planetary science (NRC, 2011b) were based on budget projections provided to the relevant decadal committees, and now these projections exceed the current budget as well as current budget projections. Rising costs associated with increasingly complex missions, declining science budgets, international partnerships that fell apart, and mission cost overruns have strained science budgets to their breaking point. As a result, key decadal priorities in astrophysics, planetary science, and Earth science will not be pursued for many years, or not at all. The carefully crafted strategic planning process, with its priority setting and consensus building, which 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.
The NASA aeronautics program has made important contributions to national priorities related to the U.S. air transportation system, national defense, and those portions of the space program that include flight through Earth’s atmosphere. However, the budget for NASA’s aeronautics program shrank significantly in the 2000-2010 decade, and the full historically demonstrated potential of the aeronautics program is not being achieved given the current levels of funding. During the course of its deliberations, the committee did not hear a clear rationale for the overall decline in NASA aeronautics spending during the past 15 years.
Because of the unique nature of most of its missions, NASA has had a number of very specific technological requirements in areas ranging from expendable and reusable launch vehicles to deep-space propulsion systems to radiation protection for astronauts, and much more. The recently established Space Technology Program has carried out a roadmapping and priority-setting strategic planning process for such technologies, assisted by the NRC, but the program is yet to be funded at the levels requested by the President’s budget.
BUDGETS AND BALANCE
The funding for NASA’s total budget has been remarkably level in constant-year dollars for more than a decade. However, there has been some instability at the programmatic level, and the out-year projections in the President’s budget are unreliable, which makes it difficult for program managers to plan activities that require multi-year planning. Put another way, although the budget may have been level over time, NASA experienced substantial program instability over the same period. Numerous times the agency initiated new programs with the expectation that budgets would increase to support them (a basic
requirement for optimizing any development program’s budget), only to have no increases emerge. Taken in aggregate, this situation has been wasteful and inefficient. Even leaving aside the funding requirements for large procurements, it is tempting to assume that if NASA officials knew to expect a flat budget they could plan better, but in several recent cases they were told (even required) to expect funding that never ultimately emerged.
Last, flat budgets historically have not allowed NASA to pursue major initiatives in human spaceflight; see Figures 1.4 and 1.5, where the budget bumps for Apollo and the space shuttle/ISS programs are apparent.
NASA cannot execute a robust, balanced aeronautics and space program given the current budget constraints. For example, major components needed for future human exploration (including important life sciences experiments on the ISS) are not currently in the budget; high-priority science missions (including robotic planetary exploration missions that are precursors to human exploration) identified in the most recent NRC decadal survey are unfunded; and aeronautics now accounts for only about 3 percent of the total NASA budget. In addition, individual NASA centers are finding it necessary to selectively reduce their infrastructure or find alternative ways to support it (e.g., through external collaborations). External partnerships can be highly beneficial, especially in the current fiscally constrained environment, and may enable NASA to execute a robust and balanced aeronautics and space program without additional funds. However, coordination and integration of such activities for the overall benefit of NASA are both essential for success.
Because of legislative and regulatory limitations, NASA officials lack flexibility in how to manage the agency in terms of personnel and facilities, a factor contributing to the mismatch between budget and mission. With the current available-budget-driven approach, 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 by nature must accommodate increases in fixed and indirect costs. Delays also have a deleterious effect on mission performance; stretching programs out limits opportunities for NASA to develop and incorporate new technology into program architectures defined years before.
There is a significant mismatch between the programs to which NASA is committed and the budgets that have been provided or anticipated. The approach to and pace of a number of NASA’s programs, projects, and activities will not be sustainable if the NASA budget remains flat, as currently projected. This mismatch needs to be addressed if NASA is to efficiently and effectively develop enduring strategic directions of any sort.
To reduce the mismatch between the overall size of its budget and NASA’s current portfolio of missions, facilities, and personnel, the White House, Congress, and NASA, as appropriate, could use any or all of the following four (non-mutually exclusive) options. The committee 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. Regardless of the approach or approaches selected, eliminating the mismatch will be difficult.
• 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 U.S. 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 or more of NASA’s current portfolio elements (human exploration, Earth and space science, aeronautics, and space technology) in favor of the remaining elements.
Each of the above sample options, with the possible exception of Option 2, would require legislative action. Every option except for Option 3 would require substantial changes within NASA in order to substantially address the mismatch between NASA’s programs and budget. Before implementation of any such options, the advantages and disadvantages, including possible unintended consequences, would deserve careful consideration. For example, if not handled carefully, Option 1 could constrain future mission options or increase future mission costs if unique facilities needed by future missions were decommissioned. Option 1 might also diminish NASA’s workforce capabilities if changes in policies prompt large numbers of key personnel to retire or seek other employment. To be effective, Option 2 might require congressional authorization for NASA to make long-term financial commitments to a particular program to assure prospective partners that neither NASA nor Congress would unilaterally cancel a joint program. Option 3, of course, is ideal from NASA’s perspective, but its selection also seems unlikely given the current outlook for the federal budget. Option 4 is perhaps the least attractive, given the value of each major element in NASA’s portfolio.
The committee has identified significant impacts of current budget constraints on the individual programs at NASA and has described the kinds of options that would have to be considered to address the mismatch between the scope of NASA’s programs and budget. It has not attempted to judge the appropriateness of the budget distribution among these programs internal to the agency. Moreover, it would have been difficult to do so because of the absence of stated priorities that would provide a framework for making that assessment. In addition, the committee notes that it was not asked to set those kinds of agency-wide priorities.
The foregoing observations (and the detailed discussions in the body of this report) lead the committee to reach the following conclusions and offer the related recommendations:
Conclusion: There is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA. Absent such a consensus, NASA cannot reasonably be expected to develop enduring strategic priorities for the purpose of resource allocation and planning.
Recommendation: The administration should take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA’s future that is stated in terms of a set of clearly defined strategic goals and objectives. This process should apply both within the administration and between the administration and Congress and should be reached only after meaningful technical consultations with potential international partners. The strategic goals and objectives should be ambitious, yet technically rational, and should focus on the long term.
Recommendation: Following the establishment of a new consensus on the agency’s future, NASA should establish a new strategic plan that provides a framework for decisions on how the agency will pursue its strategic goals and objectives, allows for flexible and realistic implementation, clearly establishes agency-wide priorities to guide the allocation of resources within the agency budget, and presents a comprehensive picture that integrates the various fields of aeronautics and space activities.
Recommendation: NASA’s new strategic plan, future budget proposals prepared by the administration, and future NASA authorization and appropriation acts passed by Congress should include actions that will eliminate the current mismatch between NASA’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities, and staff, while establishing and maintaining a sustainable distribution of resources among human spaceflight, Earth and space science, and aeronautics, through some combination of the kinds of options identified above by the committee. The strategic plan should also address the rationale for resource allocation among the strategic goals in the plan.
Recommendation: NASA should work with other U.S. government agencies with responsibilities in aeronautics and space to more effectively and efficiently coordinate U.S. aeronautics and space activities.
Conclusion: The NASA field centers do not appear to be managed as an integrated resource to support the agency and its strategic goals and objectives.
Conclusion: Legislative and regulatory limitations on NASA’s freedom to manage its workforce and infrastructure constrain the flexibility that a large organization needs to grow or shrink specific scientific, engineering, and technical areas in response to evolving goals and budget realities.
Although the committee carefully analyzed NASA’s current strategic plan, as well as previous ones, it ultimately concluded that the strategic planning process is affected more by what happens outside the agency than by any process inside NASA. The lack of a national consensus on what NASA should do constrains NASA’s ability to plan and to operate.
The committee recognizes that it lacked the capability and time to conduct a detailed supporting analysis and to make specific recommendations for changes in the current NASA infrastructure. However, the committee offers a path forward for NASA to follow, in close collaboration with the President and Congress.
Recommendation: With respect to NASA centers:
• The administration and Congress should adopt regulatory and legislative reforms that would enable NASA to improve the flexibility of the management of its centers.
• NASA should transform its network of field centers into an integrated system that supports its strategic plan and communications strategy and advances its strategic goals and objectives.
Today it is common to declare that all future human spaceflight or large-scale Earth and space science projects will be international. Many U.S. leaders also assume that the United States will take the lead in such projects. However, American leadership in international space cooperation requires meeting several conditions. First, the United States has to have a program that other countries want to participate in, and this is not always the case. Second, the United States has to be willing to give substantial responsibility to its partners. In the past, the approach of the United States to international partnership has too often been perceived as being based on a program conceived, planned, and directed by NASA. Third, other nations must be able to see something to gain—in other words, a reason to partner with the United States. Finally, the United States has to demonstrate its reliability and attractiveness as an international partner.
The capabilities and aspirations of other nations in space have changed dramatically since the early days of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. One of the most important successes of the ISS was its international character and the role of the United States as the managing partner in a global enterprise. If the United States does seek to pursue a human mission to Mars, such a mission will undoubtedly require the efforts and financial support of many nations.
Recommendation: The United States should explore opportunities to lead a more international approach to future large space efforts both in the human space program and in the science program.
In preparing this report, the committee held three meetings at which current and former NASA leaders, representatives of other government agencies, academics, and historians shared their views of the origin and evolution of NASA and its programs and the issues facing the agency today. The committee
received input from nearly 800 members of the public through a Web-based questionnaire, and small groups of committee members visited each of the nine NASA field centers and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Furthermore, the committee reviewed a large number of studies conducted by the NRC and other groups over the decades that made recommendations about the conduct of NASA’s programs and the agency’s future, as well as NASA’s strategic plans back to 1986.
The committee was impressed with the quality of personnel and the level of commitment of the agency’s civil service and contractor staffs and the superb quality of the work done by the agency in general, most notably recently demonstrated by the Curiosity landing on Mars. But the committee also heard about frustration with the agency’s current path and the limitations imposed on it by the inability of the national leadership to agree on a long-term direction for the agency. Only with a national consensus on the agency’s future strategic direction, along the lines described in this report, can NASA continue to deliver the wonder, the knowledge, the national security and economic benefits, and the technology typified by its earlier history.
NRC (National Research Council). 2007. Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
NRC. 2010. New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
NRC. 2011a. Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
NRC. 2011b. Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.