Roadmap To Nowhere

NASA’s top managers spent two days this week figuring out the agency’s future, starting with the “broad guidelines” set out in the compromise legislation that President Barack Obama signed on Monday.

So far it’s a little thin – to put it mildly – even though Obama was elected almost two years ago. Here’s the “vision” posted on the NASA website after the meeting:

“NASA leads scientific and technological advances in aeronautics and space for a nation on the frontier of discovery.”

It isn’t “land someone on Mars” or even “go back to the Moon,” but there it is.

Now, here’s the “mission:”

“Drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of the Earth.”

The “strategic plan goals” that go with these two statements aren’t much better. “Extend and sustain human activities across the solar system,” is goal No. 1. The remaining five don’t get any more specific.

After two years of debate, you’d expect more from the nation that landed men on the Moon, spearheaded the International Space Station and operates the Hubble Space Telescope.

The bill Obama signed has some detail — spend $11.5 billion on a heavy-lift launch vehicle; modify the Orion crew capsule for an as-yet-unspecified exploration mission; develop advanced technology that can help human and robotic missions down the road; figure out how to get a commercial space transportation industry going.

But it left NASA’s international partners — and a lot of others with an interest in space exploration — scratching their heads.

“It’s not very clear for us what the message is in this new space policy, and we will have to clarify it,” said Emmanuel di Lipkowski, France’s space attache in Washington, on Friday.

Administrator Charles Bolden added his perspective in a message to NASA employees after the management retreat. He’s grateful for all the hard work that went into the new space plan, and looking for more of the same.

[![blog post photo][1]][2] _NASA/Carla Cioffi_

“This is a wonderful time for NASA – a time of excellent opportunities to shape a promising future for the nation’s space program,” the Bolden message states. “At the same time, an incredible amount of work lies ahead.”

There’s no doubt about that. But the fact that there still isn’t a detailed plan for the U.S. space program, with money behind it, shows just how badly broken the U.S. space program is at the top.

Bolden’s White House handlers are keeping him on a pretty short leash these days, blocked from taking reporters’ questions about the new legislation in a telephone press conference on Monday and generally muzzled in other venues. Agency gossip has him on the way out, but no one who knows for sure is saying.

Unfortunately, no one else has the authority to lead the space program right now. And no one can do it with press releases and spin.

“Isn’t it just a crying shame,” one dedicated – and frustrated — agency employee asked me.

Damn right it is.

[1]: [2]: (Click here to view this image at full size in another window…)


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