NASA’s technology base is “largely depleted” and the agency hasn't been producing the breakthroughs needed to achieve new goals, the National Research Council said on Tuesday.
“Currently available technology is insufficient to accomplish many intended space missions,” including sending humans to the moon or Mars, as well as destinations closer to home, the council, part of the independent National Academies of Science, said in a report.
With the end of the space shuttle program earlier this year, NASA and lawmakers have struggled to define clear-cut goals for the space agency, especially as government budgets shrink. On Monday, NASA officials raised the possibility that the International Space Station would need to be temporarily abandoned because of trouble with Russian spacecraft, which are now the main link to the station.
The ambiguity has undermined innovation at NASA and hurt its ability to develop new technology, the panel found.
“In the modern era, in which the goals of space exploration have expanded beyond a single target, the necessary technological developments have become less clear and more effort is required to evaluate the best path for a forward-looking technology development program,” according to the interim report, commissioned on behalf of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist as part of an ongoing review of technology development at the space agency.
“NASA has now entered a transitional stage, moving from the past era in which desirable technological goals were evident to all, to one in which careful choices among many conflicting alternatives must be made,” the research council said.
While NASA officials are still reviewing the details, they largely agree with the report’s observations, Bobby Braun, the space agency's chief technologist, said on Tuesday.
A final report is expected to be completed by January, in time for FY 2012 budget planning. The findings will likely bolster NASA’s efforts to protect itself from major budget cuts.
Noting that “technological breakthroughs have long been the foundation of NASA’s successes,” the report said more stability in the agency’s programs could help it develop new technology. Next year’s final report is expected to include specific recommendations for NASA to improve its technology.