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Dear NASA, Be real! Love, the National Research Council.

by Sarah Scoles

After the federal government suggested a comprehensive and independent assessment of NASA's "strategic direction and agency management," NASA asked the National Research Council (NRC) if they would please do so. The NRC said, "Okay, NASA," and formed a 12-person committee. The report just came out, and while it does appear to be comprehensive and independent, it isn't pretty. 

The 80-page document is available for free at the National Academies Press. If you think you might want the gritty details, I recommend at least a skim--it's not all that gritty, and the committee did an effective job (and perhaps they were given a prescriptive format) of saying, "Here's what we noticed; here's why it's a problem; here's how you can fix it; also, here are some more ways you can fix it." The text is quite narrative, readable, and broken it up into sensible sections.

But because it's Friday, and you, like Rebecca Black, gotta get down on Friday and don't have time for PDFs, the highlights are below:

The committee's goal: to figure out how NASA can accomplish its goals.Credit: Sonia Kathuria.

The preface begins, "The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is widely admired for astonishing accomplishments since its formation in 1958. Looking ahead over a comparable period of time, what can the United States and the world expect of NASA? What will be the agency’s goals and objectives, and what will be the strategy for achieving them? More fundamentally, how and by whom will the goals, objectives, and strategy be established and subsequently modified to reflect changes in science, technology, national priorities, and available resources?"


The committee's assessment: obstacles to NASA's accomplishment of its goals.

Let's start with the problems the committee so comprehensively and independently saw in NASA:

  1. The budget has been level, despite the increasing costs of missions.
  2. Despite the flat budget, which one might think would provide ongoing programs approximately the same $$ year-to-year, the $$ going to each program has fluctuated, leading to instability and delays.
  3. There is not enough money to accomplish the science goals set forth in the decadal survey (a document of science discovery and investigation priorities meant to guide research and budgets for periods of ten years). As a result, these goals "will now not be pursued for many years, or not at all."
  4. NASA maintains too many programs for the amount of money they have.
  5. Low funding even for programs that are funded results in stretching their timelines, which annoys everyone and also means it's impossible to start many new programs.
  6. The aeronautics portion of NASA is too small a portion of the budget to make strides that help industry and defense.
  7. Each NASA homestead (of which there are 11) does not have the ability to "manage personnel and facilities." Which means they can't tear buildings down/sell things/fire people/cancel projects easily to make their operations more cost-effective.
  8. The NASA sites do not combine capabilities as much as they could, and some of the sites do redundant things. For instance, both Dryden and Langley are working on warp drives for their vegetable-oil-powered Cylon Raiders. No, but really, "the NASA field centers do not appear to be managed as an integrated resource."
  9. The infrastructure was largely established during the Apollo program and is thus as old as "the dream."
  10. There is going to be a large time-gap in between American human space flights, and NASA does not have a strategic plan in place for rocketing humans around in the future.
  11. The human spaceflight goal that does exist was made up by the President in 2010. It's supposed to be a stepping-stone to a martian colony but is not actually a stepping-stone to anything except itself. The idea is to land people on an asteroid by 2025.
  12. Most people don't know we are supposed to send some people to an asteroid by 2025. 
  13. Most NASA employees are not supportive of sending some people to an asteroid by 2025.
  14. They're like, "That's a weird goal."
  15. NASA has no concrete plans in place to send some people to an asteroid by 2025, although they maintain that it's their near-term human spaceflight goal.
  16. I have goals too, NASA: I would like to meet a unicorn and inspire a filmmaker to make a biopic made about my unicorn and me.
  17. Though there exists a document called "The 2011 NASA Strategic Plan," it's a misleading title. The NRC committee says the plan "avoids stating any clear prioritization of the goals described therein...is broad in scope and vague on details and does not have a clearly defined plan about how to achieve the agency’s goals and objectives." Also they want to land on an asteroid and no one is sure why.


The committee's suggestions for how NASA can help NASA help itself:

Dear NASA, 

If you want to make yourself back into the dream machine you were in the 1960s, you need to:

Rainbow fuel exhaust will save the space program. Credit: Pretty Day Designs.

  1. Form spaceflight and science partnerships with other countries and don't be so much like, "We are the best and also the boss." Truly collaborate. This is not the Cold War.
  2. Form a consensus about where NASA should be going. This is called a "strategic vision." You may not have heard the term before, which is why we put it in quotations.
  3. Use concrete, not abstract, language when putting that consensus on a piece of paper.
  4. Make smaller objectives that lead step by step to The Future.
  5. Allocate resources in a way that reflects the steps you plan to take on your journey to The Future.
  6. Balance the distribution of resources between human spaceflight, Earth and space science, and aeronautics. 
  7. Tell everybody why you're giving various programs money and staff and equipment, so that you can be held accountable and so that you'll have to come up with an explanation for how those programs further your strategic vision.

Aside from these smaller solutions, we also offer offered four overaching options for changing NASA's structure and culture:

a) Institute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs to improve efficiency.

b) Engage in and commit for the long term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners.

c) Increase the size of the NASA budget.

d) Reduce considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA’s current program

e) Well, d sucks, but how about a, b, and c?

We will use vague language to say that we think you should cut staff and/or pay PhD engineers less than a living wage and/or make the James Webb Space Telescope 1/10 its planned size, but let's be real--who's going to increase the size of your budget?



Those 12 people

PS--We love you! This is for your own good.