NASA adrift


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration made science and technology sources of national pride during the Cold War. But today, according to the influential National Research Council, the agency seems lost in space, without a unified goal or purpose.

With its shuttle program grounded, its funding flat, and the definition of its next major mission unclear, NASA faces a difficult transition. But the independent scientists who assessed NASA’s status also wonder whether the space agency is in a destructive holding pattern.

None of this bodes well for Ohio, which has contributed more to America’s space program than an impressive list of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which includes the Plum Brook field station near Sandusky, employs 3,400 people.

NASA Glenn is one of the agency’s 10 research centers. Since 2007, more than $225 million has been invested in the agency’s Ohio facilities.

NASA deserves both public and government support. But at a time of tight budgets, the agency cannot merely lament a lack of funding. It should consider the research panel’s proposal to streamline some operations, although the experts did not target any centers by name.

More collaboration with other countries on space missions probably is inevitable. Yet the panel warned that NASA could cede its leadership role and further weaken itself if it goes too far.

Americans have grown ambivalent about the International Space Station, and the use of Russian spaceships to shuttle American astronauts there and back. Some rocket-building has been outsourced to private companies.

NASA operates on about half the aid it received in the 1960s, adjusted for inflation. Officials disagree over whether the agency should focus on sending a man to Mars, or whether it should go back to the moon.

The Obama Administration said more than two years ago it wants astronauts sent to an asteroid by 2025 as a prelude to going to Mars, but hasn’t funded that mission. NASA officials aren’t convinced it’s the best course of action, and haven’t done much to identify an asteroid target.

A member of the research council’s assessment team, Bob Crippen, is a retired NASA manager and astronaut who piloted the first space shuttle mission. He told the Associated Press he has never seen NASA so adrift. The space agency had greater focus during the decade that elapsed between the end of the Apollo moon landings and the beginning of its shuttle program, Mr. Crippen said.

NASA’s situation is a result of several factors, including the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster that prompted then-President George W. Bush to announce the shuttle program would be retired. President Obama followed through on that commitment, but has not offered a long-range vision for NASA.

Until he does, the space agency’s research facilities, including those in Ohio, may not remain on a solid footing.