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Yet Another Slow Motion Advisory Committee on Human Space Flight

By Keith Cowing
November 6, 2012
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Keith’s note: The National Research Council has created the Committee on Human Spaceflight – yet another semi-annual effort to study and advise Congress on NASA’s human space flight activities: “In accordance with Section 204 of the NASA Authorization Act 2010, the National Research Council (NRC) will appoint an ad hoc committee to undertake a study to review the long-term goals, core capabilities, and direction of the U.S. human spaceflight program and make recommendations to enable a sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program.”
Do these congressionally-mandated NRC policy committees ever really say anything useful or new about space policy? These NASA efforts are quasi-regular exercises where a group of familiar names an a few new ones are brought together for a series of sedate meetings that last for more than a year. You see, congressional authorization committees direct NASA to pay for these studies when they feel that Congress needs a blue ribbon panel to produce verbiage that they can use to beat NASA and the current administration over the head when Congress feels that they are not being listened to.
Once completed, the policy reports are only cited if the have useful sentences that support (or seem to support) a niche position that one politician or committee may take. By definition, NRC reports are never controversial but rather embody lots of slow-motion consensus and inevitable watering down of important issues. Its not that these are substandard efforts by any means since the NRC is an impressive, competent organization. At most, however, these studies take a long time to conduct and are usually a blip on the radar when they issue their final document.
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was signed into law on 11 October 2010. It has taken more than 2 years for everyone to get around to starting this study. The start date listed for this committee is November 2012 and its report is due for delivery in May 2014. That’s 1 year, 7 months. This NRC is responding to authorizing legislation passed in 2010 by the 111th Congress, with a committee now being requested by the 112th Congress, and its report will be presented to yet another Congress (113th) during the second year of a new presidential administration in mid-2014 – one where policies are in place that will differ from those in place when the task was assigned, with budgets that differ from initial conditions under which the study was undertaken.

Net result: the committee’s advice will be out of synch with reality and somewhat overtaken by events having taken a total of 3 years, 7 months to complete. Oh yes: the cost of this study? $3.6 million.. The soonest that a NASA budget could be crafted that took this committee’s advice into account would be the FY 2016 budget request. NASA and OMB will interact on the FY 2016 budget during Fall 2014 and it won’t be announced until early 2015 – 4 1/2 years after this committee and its advice was requested in the NASA Authorization Act 2010.
Further, this study is about the substance contained in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. Authorization acts say lots of interesting and specific things that never come to pass when budgets and policies are actually crafted and enacted. At best, these NRC committees look at what NASA should do or could do – not what it will do – those decisions are made by a wholly different and far less disciplined process – one that operates much more swiftly than a multi-year advisory committee is going to be able to keep pace with.
If only the advisory process were more responsive to the issues in play – and done in real time – perhaps these committees could actually find their considered, expert advice work its way to actual implementation.
Oh yes: If Gov. Romney wins, he has said that he will convene his own blue ribbon panel to look at American space policy – and human spaceflight is clearly going to be one of the top issues addressed. That committee will likely finish with its task (much of its decisions having been pre-ordained by a Romney Administration) before the NRC team even gets a draft report out for internal review. Whose advice will prevail?

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.