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Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 06:11 AM

NASA on verge of losing its edge, report says

By Amina Khan and Rosie Mestel
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Years of trying to do too many things with too little money have put NASA at risk of ceding leadership in space exploration to other nations, according to a new report that calls on the space agency to make some decisions about its long-term strategy.

As other countries — including potential adversaries — are investing heavily in space, federal funding for NASA is essentially flat and is under constant threat of being cut.

Without a clear vision, that uncertainty makes it all the more difficult for the agency to make progress on goals such as sending astronauts to an asteroid or Mars while executing big-ticket science missions, such as the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, says the analysis released Wednesday by the National Research Council.

"These problems are not primarily of NASA's doing, but the agency could craft a better response to the uncertainty," wrote the report's authors, a group of 12 independent experts led by Albert Carnesale, former chancellor at UCLA.

"If the United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner."

The report, commissioned by NASA at the behest of Congress, said the agency lacked a long-range agenda that enjoyed widespread support from government and the public. The authors also made plain that many of the problems boil down to money.

"NASA cannot execute a robust, balanced aeronautics and space program given the current budget constraints," the report warns. "There is a significant mismatch between the programs to which NASA is committed and the budgets that have been provided or anticipated."

To address the "mismatch," the report committee laid out four options for getting NASA's goals in line with its resources. It acknowledged that the most appealing plan — getting more money from Congress — was unlikely.

Other possibilities include relying more on partnerships with other countries and private companies; undertaking an "aggressive restructuring program" that eliminates jobs and facilities; or giving up one of its main focus areas, such as the astronaut program or its studies of deep space.

The authors did not weigh in on which course NASA should choose. But they emphasized that Congress and the Obama administration couldn't afford to ignore an uncomfortable truth: "NASA's distribution of resources may be out of sync with what it can achieve relative to what it has been asked to do."

The report comes a year after the retiring of the space-shuttle fleet, leaving the agency with no clear agenda for its flagship human-spaceflight division.


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