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New report questions decisions at NASA; Is it time for a new agency?

A new report has determined that NASA is beginning to fail after being asked to do more than it can without enough support.

The report, named “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space,” was put together by the Science Foundation and advises NASA to stop worrying so much about research and focus once again on space expeditions.

One of the main concerns of the report is that it has been 40 years since the last man, Gene Cernan, walked the moon. Elliot Pulham, the CEO of the Space Foundation, says the foundation has heard people asking since the last moon landing why NASA hasn’t done anything that “cool.” “Of course, the answer is we can, but it requires focus and it requires organization,” he said. “What you have [at NASA] is too many rudders. If … everybody’s trying to steer, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

The report names NASA’s ever-shifting leadership as the main culprit for unproductively. The Space Foundation suggested that Congress let NASA change and control its leadership, allowing long-term goals and funding flexibility to be developed.

“As the space program has evolved, we have witnessed frequent redirection and constantly shifting priorities at NASA, mixed signals from Congress and the administration, organizational conflicts and the lack of a singular purpose, resulting in a space agency without a clear, stable direction,” the report states.

The report argues that NASA needs a unified purpose again. And it recommends what that purpose should be: pioneering.
“This report does not advocate for space settlement or colonization; rather, it is focused on expanding the human sphere of influence,” the authors write. “For example, much of the ocean floor is part of the human sphere of influence through the use of robotics, even if it is seldom visited by humans. One way or another, humans should seek to sustain a presence elsewhere in the solar system.”

The Space Foundation’s report hasn’t found anything that wasn’t already coming to light. Recently, a growing disappointment in the U.S. space program has been seen. Many events have led to this disenchantment. After ending the shuttle program last year, U.S. astronauts now travel to space using Russian rocket. In addition, the next trip to the moon has been cancelled and visitor trips to Mars are over two decades away.

At the news conference for the report, Pulham used a story to illustrate NASA ever-decreasing luster. He said 40 years ago, at the peak of the Apollo space program, a Kennedy Space Center janitor was asked about his job. According to Pulham, the man answered, “‘My job is to help put a man on the moon.”

“Everybody in NASA knew what their job was. I would challenge you to walk into a NASA center today and ask that question — how many different answers you would get.”

Pulham does not necessarily expect the report’s recommendations to be embraced fully and implemented immediately. But he does hope “Pioneering” gets people talking.
“I’m optimistic that this is going to make a positive contribution to the national dialogue,” Pulham said. “If it can serve as nothing more than a point to kick off a national dialogue that does have some result, then we’re going to feel really great about what we’ve done.”
He added that he remains unsure whether the report will lead to any changes at the U.S. space agency. Pulham said that he supports changes, but notes that NASA has to maintain the flexiblity to adjust its priorities as times change.
“We think that NASA’s budget needs to be able to fluctuate with the work that they need to do,” Pulham said. “The budget needs to track with the program. So we recommended things like multi-year procurement authorizations — something that the Pentagon and other agencies do very successfully.”

Although the Space Foundation seems underwhelmed with NASA’s current work, David Weaver, a spokesman for the agency, said they are “making steady progress.” According to Weaver, NASA is working towards all of the goals listed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which details the program’s aims for the next two decades.

Recently NASA has also begun working with private companies to create spacecrafts to move astronauts from the international space station back to earth, something that used to be done by space shuttles before the program was cancelled last year.

Still, Weaver insists NASA is on course. “The agency will continue to prioritize its work to achieve these national goals and carry out the direction of Congress and the White House,” he said.