The Obama administration spent considerable effort and political capital during its first term to steer NASA in a new direction. One major change was canceling the space agency's earlier plan to return to the moon and replacing it with the goal of landing humans on an asteroid by 2025. But the political fights over that shift may continue into the administration's second term, if a report released today by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies is any indication.
The report evaluating NASA's strategic direction was commissioned by the space agency at Congress's urging. Its main message is that the lack of "a national consensus on strategic goals and objectives" has set NASA adrift and is preventing the agency from forging a clear path ahead. (If that sounds tautological, it's because it is.)
"A current stated interim goal of NASA's human spaceflight program is to visit an asteroid by 2025," said Albert Carnesale, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the committee that authored the report. "However, we've seen limited evidence that this has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA's own work force, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community. The lack of national consensus on NASA's most publicly visible human spaceflight goal along with budget uncertainty has undermined the agency's ability to guide program planning and allocate funding."
The report recommends that Congress, the White House, and NASA pursue one or more of a number of options to set things straight. Options include restructuring the space agency's programs so as to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs; finding ways to partner with other agencies, the private sector, and international partners; and increasing NASA's budget or shedding programs that don't fit NASA's current budget profile.
In the meantime, NASA yesterday announced that it is moving ahead with the next step in its plan to explore Mars with robots and ultimately bring back to Earth a sample of the Red Planet's earth and rock : It will send a new rover to Mars in 2020 . But at a press conference, NASA officials backed away from specifying exactly what the new rover would do, saying that will be up to a science planning team to decide. Many researchers, however, are calling on the agency to build a rover that would collect and cache Mars samples that could be picked up and returned to Earth during a future mission.