NASA Exploration Could Lag: Panel

A National Academies "midterm review" of NASA's progress in implementing the recommendations of the National Research Council's (NRC) 2003-2013 solar system exploration decadal survey gives the agency passing marks for now, but projects it will fail to meet the survey's goals if current trends continue.

The NRC's review assigned a letter grade for various aspects of NASA's solar system exploration program according to how well they are meeting or not meeting the recommendations of the survey, which are culled from the scientific community. NASA received a grade of "B" for its overall solar system exploration effort, but the report notes a downward trend.

"On its current course NASA will not be able to fulfill the recommendations of the decadal survey," the report says. "The reasons for this are reduced investment in research, data analysis, technology development, and smaller mission programs, coupled with increasing mission costs, overruns on approved flight projects, and spiraling launch vehicle costs."

The report notes NASA's failure to initiate a flagship-class mission to explore Jupiter's icy moon Europa, which scientists consistently rank as their highest priority for exploration in the outer solar system.

NASA also has "neglected" work on the ambitious Mars Sample Return mission, and should begin "actively planning" for the mission now, the panel says. Overall, however, the Mars exploration program received the only "A" grade of all the major categories in NRC's review.

The committee is "deeply concerned" with the state of NASA's research and analysis, planetary astronomy and flight mission data gathering, which received a "C" with a downward trend. "Research and analysis funding is essentially the 'seed corn' that helps to define future missions and carry them out, and serious cutbacks in this area have harmed NASA's ability to conduct future solar system exploration," the report says.

NASA's investments in enabling technologies received the lowest grade in the review - a downward-trending "D" - with the panel noting that "severe reductions in funding" pose a serious risk to future flight missions. "In reviewing missions under consideration, or even in the active planning stages for the next 5 years and beyond, it is clear that without a considerable, sustained investment in technology development, much of the technical risk of those missions cannot be reduced to levels that would instill confidence about mission success."

The category of Flight Missions received a "B" with a downward trend, with the NRC pointing to "troubling indicators" such as the fact that NASA's launch rate for solar system exploration missions of all categories is lower than envisioned in the decadal survey, particularly for the Discovery program. But the panel says that if NASA approves the start of a Europa mission along with two new Discovery missions and a New Frontiers mission, the trend could reverse.

NRC is recommending that NASA move forward with plans to upgrade the Deep Space Network, and "work aggressively" to deal with the impending crisis in launch vehicles brought about by the planned retirement of the Delta II rocket, rising launch costs, and the uncertain availability of suitable rockets for smaller missions.