Science Committee Hears Perspectives on NASA's Strategic Vision and the Future of the Space Program

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Publication date: 
28 January 2013

“While NASA’s programs are funded as part of the Federal domestic discretionary budget, we should not forget that those programs are long-term [research and development] undertakings, and they can’t just be turned on and off whenever we have a short-term fiscal issue needing attention—not if we want them to be successful, and not if we want to maintain our commitment to the dedicated workforce that is trying to bring them to fruition. That is a challenge we are going to face in the coming months and years as we work to put the nation’s financial house in order. Because we forget at our peril the hard reality that investments in [research and development] and innovation, such as in the programs and projects carried out at NASA are just that—investments—investments in our nation’s future.” – Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Committee on Science, Space and Technology

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a December 6 hearing to review perspectives on the strategic vision for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During that hearing Members heard what steps the government can take to help maintain American leadership in space, what are some priorities that policy makers should consider when evaluating NASA plans, and how the agency and stakeholder community identify and preserve critical capabilities necessary for NASA’s missions.

The hearing addressed NASA’s 2011 Strategic Plan and the National Research Council report which reviewed this strategic plan. A hearing charter prepared by Science Committee Republican staff commented on the FY2013 NASA budget stating that “NASAs flagship missions, while expensive, are the only means by which certain scientific problems can be effectively addressed.”

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) opened the hearing by noting that “there are a number of significant issues confronting NASA and its space program: a diminishing number of missions under development in the space sciences arena; an aeronautics budget that can no longer support full scale demonstration flights; and no clearly articulated vision for our human exploration program beyond the International Space Station.” He was disappointed by the current lack of consensus on NASA goals and pointed out that there had been consensus on overall strategic direction during the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2008, even when funding levels were less than those recommended. “Fiscal realities demand that NASA become more efficient and sized correctly to accomplish its goals, but consensus will have to be re-established among the agency’s stakeholders to clarify NASA’s strategic vision, goals, and missions.”

Major General Ronald Sega, Vice Chair of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, agreed with Members that “there is a mismatch between the portfolio of programs assigned to the agency and the budget allocated by Congress.” He noted that the NRC committee found that “while NASA develops a strategic plan on a regular basis, the agency itself does not establish its strategic goals. Those are developed by the national leadership and key stakeholders within the national leadership do no always agree on the goals the agency should pursue.” In order to address this problem, the NRC committee recommends that “the Administration should take the lead in forging a new national consensus on NASA’s future that is stated in terms of a set of clearly defined strategic goals and objections.”

Robert Walker, Executive Chairman of Wexler and Walker (and former Science Committee Chairman), highlighted that the NRC report does a comprehensive job of detailing the challenges faced by NASA including “a lack of agreed upon direction, lack of adequate resources to do all that is asked of the agency, aging infrastructure, the emergence of other space-capable nations, the collapse of some international partnerships, the rapid pace of new technology development, and the increasing irrelevance of the aeronautical research program.” He stressed the need for public-private partnerships, emphasizing that “high risk will lead to new technologies. That combination of risk and reward will underpin the next generation of space knowledge and products.”

Walker acknowledged the current fiscal constraints, stating that “no federal budget in the foreseeable future is going to provide NASA with the money it needs to do everything we want it to do.” He noted that several recent commissions have all reached the conclusion that commercial activity in the form of public-private partnerships is a key to space leadership. He recommends that to expand NASA’s funding base, the agency should broaden its focus beyond aerospace and “beyond the authorization and appropriations process on Capitol Hill.”

Marion Blakey, President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) discussed the AIA’s recent report “Space in Our World” in her testimony. She recommended that NASA needs stable long-term investments and steady policy goals since stability is both better for NASA as well as the industrial base.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Professor for Space Science and Aerospace and Associate Dean for Entrepreneurial Programs at the University of Michigan, focused his testimony on the need for NASA to ensure a talent work force and “innovative disruption.” He noted that every mission in space requires top talent and that encouraging competition promotes technical innovation and reduces costs. He supports disruptive programs because they overturn old paradigms and create new markets.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, noted that NASA’s strategic plan “does not drive the NASA budget request or the allocation of relative emphasis to activities within those requests.” Furthermore he said that “budgets are policy and NASA budgets are really a more accurate reflection of de facto national policy than the NASA strategic plan.” He recognized that “in today’s environment, sustaining discretionary expenditure for civil space exploration will be challenging unless there is a clearer rationale linking such efforts to broader national interests that could be supported in a bipartisan manner over many years.”

Pace went on to address the relationship between the space program and the US national interests stating that “the seemingly separate threads of human robotics, civil, commercial, and national security space activities are in fact deeply intertwined with each other both politically and technically” and that “the United States can best advance its national interests thorough a more integrated strategic approach to its national security and civil space interests.”

Pace suggested to the Science Committee that “there are many geopolitical, scientific, exploration, commercial and educational objectives that could be achieved at the moon and in contrast the case for human mission to an asteroid is unpersuasive and unsupported by technical or international realities.” He outlined the space activities within the international community, most of which is tied to lunar missions. He suggested that the US should focus on studying the moon in order to be able to partner with the nations which have lunar programs; this supports his view that NASA should “be visionary but should focus on practical actions.”

During the question period Hall, who was chairing this hearing for the last time before stepping down as chairman, noted that each of the witnesses recognized that more funds are needed for NASA. He went on to inquire about the reaction that the Administration had to the recommendations of the NRC report. To this, Sega responded stating that the report was well received by administrators he had briefed.

Hall then asked Pace to expand upon why the moon is a more appropriate step for NASA missions than an asteroid or Mars and stated that missions to the International Space Station were of top importance. Pace agreed that the International Space Station should be a near term priority; he mentioned that international partners feel left out of missions to Mars and to asteroids because those are extremely challenging endeavors, so much so that the international community does not see a way in which they can play a role and be international partners. This hurts the US because “international cooperation is essential to any exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

Johnson requested that the panel of witnesses provide answers as to how the Science Committee can make positive recommendations regarding NASA issues rather than just advocating for the need for money. Walker stated that the committee could commit to support high risk technologies. He also said that while the committee can give NASA the instructions that would allow for the development of high risk high reward technologies that NASA could then reach out to outside partners for some of the necessary funding.

Throughout this hearing there seemed to be a bipartisan interest from committee Members to find ways to support NASA programs in these tight fiscal times. Both sides of the aisle seemed to recognize the importance of the unique research and development performed by NASA.

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