Academy Report Tells Obama to Think Big About Space

The Obama Administration should use the U.S. civil space program to help meet a broader array of national goals, says a report released today by the National Academies' National Research Council. The study also calls for the U.S. government to put a higher priority on environmental monitoring from space, urges NASA to create an advanced technology organization, and backs human space flight as a tool for enhancing "U.S. soft power leadership."

America's Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs appears just 24 hours before the confirmation hearing of Charles Bolden, the former astronaut that Barack Obama has nominated to lead NASA. But it does not delve into several near-term issues that senators are likely to raise with Bolden, such as cost overruns on satellite projects, retirement of the space shuttle, and an expensive new human launcher now in the works. Bolden may also face tough questions on conflict-of-interest issues, given the time he has spent as a consultant. But there's no indication that these worries could derail his confirmation.

The 15-member panel, led by Lester Lyles, a retired Air Force general who was on the short list of potential NASA chiefs, argues that the Administration must take a broader view so that "a disciplined space program can serve larger national imperatives." The report calls on the new president to reverse "the deterioration of the U.S. Earth observation infrastructure" and take the lead internationally in monitoring global climate. At the same time, it says NASA must revitalize its advanced technology program, which has suffered budget cuts in the past decade. The report recommends an organization modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency within the Department of Defense.

The panel, whose members are predominantly university professors with long experience in government service, also goes to bat for a more international approach in areas beyond climate research. The United States could "enhance [its] soft power leadership by inviting emerging economic powers to join with us in human spaceflight adventures." That presumably could include inviting China or India to take part in the international space station or in ongoing U.S. plans to return humans to the moon.