With just a few days before NASA's huge Mars rover Curiosity attempts its historic and record-setting landing, a blue-ribbon study group is taking a close look at America's space exploration future — and is seeking public comment.
The prestigious National Research Council (NRC) has appointed an ad-hoc committee to judge whether the strategic direction of NASA remains viable. A key question is on the table: Does the space agency's activities and organization "efficiently and effectively" support that direction in light of the potential for constrained budgets for the foreseeable future?
In its deliberations, the NRC Committee on NASA's Strategic Direction is getting an earful from a wide variety of experts — including former NASA chiefs — during its committee meetings.
According to Alan Angleman, a staff member of the special committee, the group is urging the public to submit additional comments and suggestions. The committee has established a website with a questionnaire here. Note: This website is accepting comments through Aug. 17.
Wanted: Common, unifying vision
The NRC Committee on NASA's Strategic Direction was kick-started in the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill that funds the space agency. [How Doubling NASA's Budget Will Fix the Economy]
Congress requested that an independent study be taken of NASA's strategic direction, requesting the committee to "recommend how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision for NASA's strategic direction that encompasses NASA's varied missions."
Strategic direction, in other words, is the set of steps NASA must take over time to accomplish its vision and mission.
Since its inception, the ad-hoc committee has been poring over a large amount of published material, including the law, spurred by the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik, which gave birth to NASA in 1958.
What is NASA's current vision? It's outlined in this document here.
In broad terms, the current NASA vision is "to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind," and its mission is to "drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth."
That NASA Strategic Plan also explains that the space agency's current direction lays "the groundwork for a sustainable program of exploration and innovation." Furthermore, this new direction embraces:
- Extending the life of the International Space Station
- Support for the growing commercial space industry
- Taking on important scientific challenges while continuing NASA's commitment to robust human space exploration, science and aeronautics programs.
What's your view?
The Strategic Directions Committee is listening to experts in aeronautics, space science and technology, space policy and programs, and communications strategy — and it wants to hear from other "stakeholders," including the public.
The website above invites your response to various questions, including:
- In your opinion, should NASA's annual budget (currently about $18 billion) be substantially increased, be substantially decreased, or remain at about the current level —and why?
- In your opinion, what is the relative value of a space exploration program (to low-Earth orbit and beyond) that includes humans as compared to a space exploration program that is conducted exclusively with robotic, uncrewed spacecraft and rovers? That is, to what extent does a human presence add value to a space exploration program, and is it worth the cost and risk?
The response to each question is limited to 300 words so that the committee can efficiently collate and analyze your response.
The responses each person submits, along with the author's name and any institution represented, will be available for viewing at the NASA Strategic Direction Committee website.
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.