A panel of experts said Wednesday that NASA lacks focus—especially where human spaceflight is concerned—and has increasingly relied on a series of expensive, risky missions in a time when funding is scarce.
"Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centerpiece of NASA's spectrum of mission areas," says the report, compiled by authors from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The report says there is a "lack of consensus" about where the agency should head next, and the agency may be spreading itself too thin.
Albert Carnesale, chair of the Committee on NASA's Strategic Direction, said in a conference call that while the agency still does important work, it needs to narrow its focus to only the most important missions. With the federal government looking to make budget cuts wherever it can, NASA continues to add new missions while its budget remains fairly stagnant.
"They're going to have to think about reducing or eliminating parts of programs in NASA's portfolio, otherwise they'll all just get stretched out in time," Carnesale said. "They have many valuable programs, but what they don't have is adequate funding for the portfolio of programs they do have."
Carnesale says the agency will have to make some tough decisions, including the consideration of consolidating some of its locations, and headquarters having tighter management of each location. They also have to make sure their missions succeed: "The programs are growing more and more expensive, more and more long-term, and more and more risky," he said.
Though it has been one of NASA's most successful missions in recent memory, Carnesale said the $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity rover is emblematic of the expensive missions NASA has been running lately.
"These are high-stakes missions, even the ones that don't involve humans," he said.
In August, Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, said the "stakes could not be higher" with the Curiosity mission and that failure of such an expensive mission would lead to huge backlash in Congress.
"If it [failed], NASA [would] have been discredited at exactly the wrong time," he says. "The voices of criticism [would have been] phenomenal."
In September, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden defended his agency, saying that "some have claimed we're adrift, that we have no clear human space missions."
"Those who perpetuate that myth are hurting the space program … it couldn't be further from the truth," he added.
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.