Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Expert panel: NASA seems lost in space, needs goal

WASHINGTON — NASA 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, rocket-building is being outsourced 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.

"I think people (at NASA) want to be focused a little more and know where they are going," Crippen told the Associated Press.

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 heavy-duty 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."

President Barack Obama told the space agency in 2010 to plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a training ground for an eventual Mars landing. But the 80-page panel report and its authors said there is little support for that idea.

Crippen said an asteroid mission just doesn't make sense technically or politically.

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