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February 9, 2011

NASA gets lots of “help”

by brainoids

Many stakeholder communities have strongly vested interests in the research & development dollars the U.S. government spends through NASA.   Over the years, various mechanisms have been used to gather inputs, advice, and recommendations on direction from these stakeholders.

A longstanding source of expert advice is the National Academies Space Studies Board.   Since NASA’s founding, the Academies have provided over 25,000 pages of advice (not all of it necessarily guaranteed to be either affordable, or internally consistent … though recent studies are making improvements in those areas).   As the graph at right shows, this advice has steadily increased in volume over the years.   (A factor of two from the 1990s forward seems to be more than can be explained simply by the efficiencies provided by desktop publishing).  8500 pages of “encouragement” during the 2001-2010 decade is voluminous by any standard.

It’s not just a matter of NASA getting more money to “advise upon”, either.   When adjusted for budget (in inflation-adjusted FY10 billions of dollars), both the volume and “intensity” of advice-giving has nearly doubled in the last decade.

In addition to the NRC, NASA has, for most of its history, also had no less than 10 different external advisory boards (“FACA committees“).   Until quite recently with the reorganization and consolidation  of the NASA Advisory Council, most of these boards had no obligation to provide self consistent and non-contradictory advice, or to live within basic constraints of reality, such as the Agency’s actual budget.

It is easy to forget that the nation’s space program is not monolithic, nor is there clear consensus about how best to use the nation’s investment in space.  Individual communities – such as science disciplines – have made great strides in setting their priorities through “decadal surveys”, and, even, beginning to confront the affordability of their desires.   However, few if any external groups provide advice and guidance on the nation’s civil space investment portfolio as a whole, spanning technology, science, human space flight, exploration, communications, launch services, and aeronautics.   (Even fewer consider integrated civil and security space investments).  As the nation confronts a decade or more of intense pressure on both civil and defense discretionary spending, space stakeholder communities – or the Federal government itself – must evolve stronger mechanisms to “self-police” competing interests, and arrive at consensus around integrated portfolios, to make the best use of increasingly scarce investment dollars.

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