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Science & Space

Panel: NASA must transform to reach Mars

By Brian Berger
SPACE.comexternal link

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Spend $12 billion on new space exploration plan over next five years. $1bn will be new money, the rest reallocated from existing NASA programs.
- Retire shuttle program by 2010
- Develop new manned exploration vehicle
- Launch manned mission to moon between 2015 and 2020
- Build permanent lunar base as "stepping stone" for more ambitious missions
- Complete commitments to International Space Station by 2010
Source: White House

WASHINGTON ( -- A commission chartered by U.S. President George W. Bush to advise him on implementing a broad new space exploration vision is recommending streamlining the NASA bureaucracy, relying more heavily on the private sector, and maintaining more oversight of the nation's space program at the White House.

The President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy is scheduled to release its final report June 16. A copy of that report, "A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover," was obtained by Space News.

The 60-page report outlines the organizational changes the commission says NASA needs to make if it is to achieve the space exploration goals laid out by Bush in January. Those goals include returning humans to the moon by 2020 in preparation for eventual human expeditions to Mars.

The nine-member commission, headed by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Edward (Pete) Aldridge, said if those goals are to be met, the nation needs to commit to space exploration for the long haul, and that the private sector must be given a much larger role in the U.S. space program.

"The Commission believes that commercialization of space should become the primary focus of the vision, and that the creation of a space-based industry will be one of the principal benefits of this journey," the report states. "Today an independent space industry does not really exist. Instead, we have various government funded space programs and their vendors. Over the next several decades -- if the exploration vision is implemented to encourage this -- an entirely new set of businesses can emerge that will seek profit in space."

The commission calls upon NASA to reach out to small, entrepreneurial firms through business opportunities targeted to them. The commission also endorses NASA's plans to award large cash prizes to encourage technological innovation. And the commission encourages the U.S. Congress to enact tax incentives, provide regulatory relief and clarify and protect property rights in space to encourage commercial exploitation of the final frontier.

In the more immediate future, the commission wants NASA to turn over nearly all launch activity to private firms.

"The Commission believes that the private sector is willing and capable of providing the initial boost into low-Earth orbit for the payloads associated with the vision," the report states. "To foster the continued development of this emerging market, the Commission believes that NASA should procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market."

The commission specifically exempts the launching of human crews from this recommendation, saying in the report that it realizes this responsibility "will likely remain the providence of the government for at least the near-term."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said June 9 that he had neither seen the commission's report nor been briefed on its recommendations. But during a speech delivered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier that same day, O'Keefe pledged to heed the commission's recommendations on transforming the space agency.

"The Aldridge commission has given a great deal of thought to how we should be organized in order to achieve these objectives," O'Keefe said. "We will be willing participants in implementing their recommendations. We are determined to transform the agency and our way of doing business to put these goals within reach."

The report says NASA needs to transform its organizational structure, business culture and management processes "all largely inherited from the Apollo era" if it is to accomplish the multi-decade exploration agenda laid out by the president.

The commission wants NASA to transform itself into "a leaner, more focused agency" starting with a major headquarters reorganization that reduces the number of mission-focused departments or what NASA calls enterprises.

Planning for such a reorganization is already well underway at NASA. A draft organization chart circulating within NASA depicts a pared down agency in which the current Office of Space Science and Office of Earth Science are combined into a single organization, and biological and physical science research activities are folded into the Exploration Systems Office.

The commission would also have NASA create a technical advisory board similar to the Defense Science Board that regularly reviews Pentagon programs, and an independent cost estimating organization modeled after the Pentagon's Cost Analysis Improvement Group.

The commission saves perhaps its most pointed criticism of NASA's organizational structure for its network of field centers spread across the United States. NASA maintains a comparatively lean headquarters organization, delegating most program and operational responsibilities to its 10 field centers. The field centers design, build and operate many of the spacecraft NASA puts in orbit. NASA critics often cite the turf battles between the field centers, many of which have overlapping responsibilities, as a major impediment to progress.

Instead, the commission recommends transforming NASA's field centers into Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, or FFRDCs, like many of the Department of Energy's flagship laboratories.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., commonly misidentified as a NASA field center, is actually an federally-funded research and development center, managed by the California Institute of Technology.

By turning NASA's field centers into facilities run by a university, non-profit or even a for-profit organization, according to the report, many of NASA's 18,000 employees could look forward to compensation and personnel benefits that are competitive with the private sector.

Turning field centers into FFRDCs could also make it easier for NASA to shed some of its workforce. The commission does not dwell on this point in the report but does note that these centers "have personnel flexibility similar to the private sector."

But not all field center responsibilities would be taken out of the hands of civil servants. Under the commission's plan, some functions, including contracting and launch and flight operations, would "remain under direct federal management" within a given field center.

The commission is also calling for the establishment of a so-called Space Exploration Steering Council reporting to the president. The last time that such a body reported to such a high level was the White House National Space Council during the first Bush administration, which was headed by Vice President Dan Quayle.

The purpose of the steering council, the report says, is to help NASA in its work, not micromanage the agency or second-guess operational decisions.

"When they work well -- and typically such bodies do -- White House coordination can expedite complex decisions, and improve interagency coordination," the report says. "It is, however, also a useful prod for NASA to keep its house in order."

The commission also identified 17 enabling technologies needed to accomplish the exploration goals. These include an affordable heavy lift capability, advanced power and propulsion, automated spacecraft rendezvous and docking capability, high bandwidth communications, closed loop life supports systems, better spacesuits for astronauts and others.

The commission also recommended that NASA establish a separate organization modeled after the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to manage projects that really push the technological envelope.

The commission would also like to see NASA create an organization similar to the Central Intelligence Agency's In-Q-Tel, a quasi-governmental venture capital firm that widely scoured the private sector for technologies that might have important national security applications.

When Bush chartered the commission in January, he asked Aldridge to report back within 100 days with recommendations on how best to implement the new space exploration goals. The committee conducted much of its work in public, holding five televised public hearings in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Dayton, OH.

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