In a report released Monday, the nonprofit Space Foundation made a number of recommendations for strengthening the focus, oversight and funding of NASA and the U.S. civil space program.
The foundation's research, conducted over the last year, revealed NASA lacks focus after years shifting of priorities, frequent redirection and mixed signals from Congress and presidential administrations. The 70-page report, "Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space," details the agency's challenges and how the U.S. can regain its leadership in space. "The problem is that we've got 18 or 20 rudders and they're all trying to steer the ship in different directions," said Elliot Pulham, chief executive officer of the Space Foundation, at a briefing on Capitol Hill. "That's what we're trying to correct. It's getting it down to one clear rudder that steers the ship."
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The foundation recommends NASA return to its roots by establishing "pioneering" as its single, compelling purpose and transitioning "non-pioneering activities" to other government agencies and private sector organizations.
"Having that fundamental sense of purpose is not foreign to NASA," Pulham said. "It's just not something they've done for a while."
The report lays out a doctrine of purpose for NASA that defines "pioneering" as developing the ability to get to and from targeted destinations and turn theoretical knowledge gained during exploration missions (such as those completed by space shuttle Endeavour, pictured above) into technology that justifies longer-term programs. In addition, the knowledge and expertise should be shared with other government organizations or the private sector for further, long-range engagement. The report does not suggest any particular destinations for NASA to pursue.
The foundation also recommends Congress amend the Space Act to assign pioneering as NASA's primary purpose and that NASA drop programs that don't fall within its pioneering purpose, consolidate infrastructure, and pursue privatization and commercialization where possible.
The report is the latest effort in recent months to bring clearer focus and leadership to NASA. Reps. John Culberson (TX), Frank Wolf (VA), Bill Posey (FL), Pete Olson (TX), James Sensenbrenner (WI) and Lamar Smith (TX), introduced the Space Leadership Preservation Act in September that proposed a 10-year term for the NASA Administrator to support longer-term vision for the agency. The proposal made little traction.
NASA's new clarity of purpose can only be realized if there is stability in the agency's leadership, according to the foundation. The report suggested that the NASA administrator be appointed for a five-year, renewable term to ensure continuity of leadership "despite shifting political winds."
In addition, foundation officials said, the president should, with the consent of the Senate, appoint a deputy administrator--a chief executive for space in government to ensure close cooperation and "singularity of purpose at the highest levels of NASA management." Pulham offered a title for this new position: Secretary for the Exterior.
Among other recommendations, the foundation proposed that NASA be required to submit a 10-year plan with specific dates, goals and objectives, and a separate, 30-year plan that provides a broader, strategic framework for its goals.
NASA's funding streams must also be stabilized to support its new purpose. The report suggested Congress create a "revolving fund" for the agency draw on to pay for its programs, supplemented through annual appropriations.
Pulham said at the briefing that NASA also can look to other government agencies for best practices in running its programs.
"We really didn't want to reinvent the wheel," he said. "There are successful practices within government. Wouldn't it be great if we could find those successful practices that people can relate to? We wanted to say, 'If you look over here in government, this is already being done, it's very successful and we think you can apply to NASA.'"
Overall, the Space Foundation is hopeful its report will generate "a national dialogue that leads to NASA becoming a successful agency," Pulham said.
Ryan Faith, a research analyst at the Space Foundation and principal author of the report, said a "meeting of the minds between the White House and Congress" is needed for NASA to pursue the foundation's recommendations.
"It's not impossible to get that kind of cohesion going forward and that's what we're going to need to make this actually unfold," he added.
More than anything, Faith said, it begins with NASA having a single, coherent purpose.
"That is the thing from which all else follows," he said.