Sci­ence panel: NASA seems lost in space

Report blames lack of di­rec­tion on Obama, Congress.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By Seth Boren­stein

— NASA, the agency that epit­o­mized the “Right Stuff,” looks lost in space and doesn’t have a clear sense of where it is go­ing, an in­de­pen­dent panel of sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing ex­perts said in a sting­ing report Wed­nes­day.

The report by a panel of the distin­guished Na­tional Academy of Sciences doesn’t blame the space agency; it faults the pres­i­dent, Congress and the na­tion for not giv­ing NASA bet­ter di­rec­tion. At the same time, it said NASA is do­ing lit­tle to fur­ther the White House’s goal of send­ing as­tro­nauts to an as­ter­oid.

In one with­er­ing pas­sage, the panel said NASA’s mis­sion and vi­sion state­ments are so vague and “generic” that they “could ap­ply to al­most any government re­search and devel­op­ment agency, omit­ting even the words ‘aero­nau­tics’ or ‘space.’ ”

The space shut­tles were re­tired in 2011 and are now mu­seum pieces. Few peo­ple are paying at­ten­tion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, and Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts have to rely on Rus­sian space­ships to get there and back. Mean­while, rock­et­build­ing is be­ing out- sourced to pri­vate com­pa­nies, and a com­mer­cial ven­ture plans to send peo­ple to the moon by the end of the decade.

Academy panel mem­ber Bob Crip­pen, a re­tired NASA man­ager and as­tro­naut who pi­loted the first space shut­tle mis­sion, said he has never seen the space agency so adrift. He said that in­cludes the decade be­tween the end of the Apollo moon land­ings in the early 1970s and the be­gin­ning of the shut­tle pro­gram.

“I think peo­ple (at NASA) want to be fo­cused a lit­tle more and know where they are go­ing,” Crip­pen said.

NASA spokesman David Weaver de­fended the agency, say­ing in an emailed state­ment that it has clear and chal­leng­ing goals. He listed sev­eral projects, in­clud­ing con­tin­ued use of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion and ef­forts to de­velop a heavy­duty rocket and crew cap­sule ca­pa­ble of tak­ing as­tro­nauts into deep space.

John Logs­don, a space pol­icy ex­pert who ad­vised the Obama cam­paign in 2008, said the panel’s report, which is more strongly worded than usual for the academy, “rather fairly points its fin­gers at the White House.”

“There’s a gen­eral sense of dis­ap­point­ment that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not been more bold and vi­sion­ary in set­ting out a path for the pro­gram,” said Logs­don.

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