National Academies Press: OpenBook

Toward a New Era in Space: Realigning Policies to New Realities (1988)


Suggested Citation:"A STREAMLINED AND REVITALIZED NASA." National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. 1988. Toward a New Era in Space: Realigning Policies to New Realities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18717.
Page 17
Suggested Citation:"A STREAMLINED AND REVITALIZED NASA." National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. 1988. Toward a New Era in Space: Realigning Policies to New Realities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18717.
Page 18
Suggested Citation:"A STREAMLINED AND REVITALIZED NASA." National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. 1988. Toward a New Era in Space: Realigning Policies to New Realities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18717.
Page 19

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17 access to the station by ELVs is highly desirable. A crew emergency rescue vehicle is essential. The nation has underinvested in advanced technologies related to space transportation systems; this situation must be remedied if intelligent future choices are to be possible. Technologies such as advanced propulsion, lightweight materials, and miniaturization, along with nondestructive testing and cost-reducing techniques, need greater emphasis. A decision on when the United States needs a heavy lift capability or other new manned or unmanned space transportation system must depend on choices of future space missions, but NASA should aggressively develop the technologies needed to enable such decisions. The currently planned space station program, a key element of an in-orbit space infrastructure, is intended to support a variety of uses. Emphasis on microgravity research as a major station justification has not provided a strong political or scientific foundation for the program. By contrast, an aspiration to extend human presence and exploration beyond the near vicinity of Earth would require understanding the impacts on humans of long-duration exposure to reduced gravity. If such a goal is chosen by the President, the U.S. portion of the space station should be optimized to perform research in life sciences such as space biology and medicine in preparation for future long-duration manned missions. Although this would represent a policy shift away from the previous emphasis on manufacturing in space, a significant amount of microgravity re- search would still be possible in the European and Japanese modules, where room has been provided for U.S. experiments by agreements signed with these nations. A dedicated U.S. module, a free-flying laboratory, or additional on- board shuttle facilities could be added later if needs for additional microgravity research develop. Other aspects of the planned space infrastructure, such as orbital maneuvering and transfer vehicles, upper stages for deep-space missions, and tracking and data relay satellites should be carefully and continually evaluated in the context of both NASA's base program of science and applications mis- sions and those special initiatives that are actually pursued. In short, the nation must avoid investing in unneeded capabilities while ensuring the availability of the capabilities required for mission success. A STREAMLINED AND REVITALIZED NASA NASA is still able to attract capable young people to its work force and retains a base of skilled, highly motivated individuals eager to take on challeng- ing new missions. But it is also an aging institution, with an urgent need for physical and human revitalization. The agency has shown an organizational cul-

18 turc resistant to change and oriented strongly to carrying out large-scale, highly visible, relatively short-term missions, rather than far-reaching campaigns that must be sustained over decades. Many doubt the present capability of the in- stitution to carry out the important missions of the future. Some of NASA's in- stitutional problems could be diminished if the agency is given a mandate for carrying out bold, imaginative, and technically challenging missions. But other problems are systemic in character and must be addressed directly. Sustaining an organization capable of excellence in carrying out programs that may take decades to complete requires innovative management approaches. To reinvigorate the space agency, the committee believes it will be neces- sary to strengthen Headquarters' management capabilities, redefine the roles and missions of the NASA field centers and make adjustments as needed, ex- amine conversion of field centers to semiautonomous status, and separate NASA's development and operational capabilities. Strengthen Headquarters Management Capabilities Although steps have been taken in recent years to address some of NASA's institutional problems, the agency has had great difficulty in attracting and retaining people of experience and capability into Washington for Head- quarters positions, a situation due in part to competition with private industry, noncompetitive civil service salary levels, and restrictions on employment after leaving government. This has led to major weaknesses in program manage- ment, institutional management, and conduct of external affairs, all areas in which the Headquarters must be strong and competent to be effective in lead- ing the centers and managing the affairs of the agency. This is a general govern- ment problem that will require legislative relief from some federal civil service regulations. NASA should have flexibility in hiring and personnel advance- ment similar to that recently given the National Institute of Standards and Tech- nology to help deal with the issue of noncompetitive salary levels. Reassign Field Center Roles and Missions Within NASA, research and technology development is administered largely by the Headquarters Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST). OAST directs three NASA research centers: Langley, Lewis, and Ames. These centers were the core of NASA's predecessor, the National Ad- visory Committee for Aeronautics, where they played distinct technology development roles. When NASA was chartered in 1958, additional centers were created to meet mission needs for the space program.

19 After the Apollo program, as budgets declined, the NASA centers sought new areas of employment. This has resulted in diffusion and blurring of the roles and missions of the centers until the focus of activity in most program areas has been greatly diminished, leading to duplication of physical and per- sonnel resources and skills and increased overhead costs. The specific roles and missions of the various field centers should be reas- sessed. A study should be undertaken of these roles and missions with the ob- jective of refocusing efforts and realigning projects with appropriate centers. Changes should be evolutionary and executed over a period of several years. Give Semiautonomous Status to Field Centers NASA programs are beginning to suffer because of retirement of skilled people and the difficulties in replacing them and in training and retaining qualified new scientists and engineers. Many facilities at the NASA field centers need rehabilitation as well. To be competitive from a personnel point of view, NASA needs relief from the civil service limitations it now bears. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is recognized as an outstanding NASA center. Much of its strength derives from its status as a federally funded research and development center that is operated by a private university and thus able to offer competitive benefits to its person- nel. Converting other NASA centers into government-owned, privately operated institutions would afford them a degree of autonomy similar to that of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lincoln Laboratory, or the National Center for Atmospheric Research and would provide them flexibility to hire and retain outstanding people by offering more attractive salaries—without increasing overall expenditures. However, any attempt at such conversion should be thoughtfully planned to ensure that commitments can be kept and research is not disrupted. Initially, such actions might only be taken at a single center. The experience gained in due course could be applied to other centers. An attempt should be made to associate each center with at least one first-rank technical university, private laboratory, or industrial laboratory and to negotiate facility renovation, when necessary, as part of the conversion process. Separate Development and Operational Capabilities NASA's current organization does not distinguish between those respon- sible for developing new systems and those responsible for long-term continu- ing operation of existing systems such as the space shuttle. There is concern that NASA may become so consumed by operational matters that the bulk of

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The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering assembled a group of experts in science, economics, engineering, and private technology-based enterprise to examine past space policies and their consequences and to recommend policies that should guide the national space program over the long term. Of special concern was the lack of national consensus regarding the long-term goals of the civil space program, which led to the loss of heavy launch capabilities, the fall of the Skylab, and, for lack of alternative launch vehicles, the prolonged absence of the United States from space following the Challenger accident. Without a durable framework to establish priorities, the U.S. space program has promised too much for the resources made available to it.

Toward a New Era in Space concludes that major changes are needed in the way the country and its leaders approach national space policy. The foundation of space policy is its sense of purpose—national goals that are imaginative, durable, and affordable. These goals and the programs to achieve them must recognize the growing capabilities of other nations and, through cooperation, accomplish objectives otherwise unobtainable. Major challenges also provide major opportunities. This report addresses those near-term decisions that can lead to a fruitful, consistent U.S. space program in the decades to come.


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