WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- President Bush must order a complete restructuring of the U.S. civilian space program in order to realize his vision of returning Americans to the moon and sending human missions to Mars and out into the solar system.
So said the commission Bush convened to review ways to implement his space proposals.
In a 60-page report hand-delivered at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning to Vice President Dick Cheney and offices on Capitol Hill, the commission called for NASA to be vastly reorganized and follow a streamlined management approach. But NASA's ability to follow the recommendations was met by widespread skepticism by many legislators, who now are facing crucial decisions about the space agency's latest budget request.
Moreover, many of the commission's recommendations mirror calls made in studies of the space program done in previous years that either were ignored or only partly adopted.
The report, "A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover," the commission offered eight findings and 14 recommendations. Chief among the latter was that the president -- and future presidents -- make space exploration a permanent national priority for funding and execution of space plans.
The commission also urged NASA to overhaul its relationship to the aerospace industry -- and the private sector in general -- to adopt a new management process more reflective of the business culture. The space agency should grant private companies a larger role in providing services, particularly in the area of space launches.
"There will still be a lot of government involvement in the launch business," said Edward C. 'Pete' Aldridge Jr., the former astronaut, who chaired the group.
The report recommended NASA "transform" itself "to become more focused and effectively integrated to implement the national space exploration vision" by building a new management structure that affixes clear authority and accountability.
Among other, controversial recommendations, was a call for NASA to transfer management of its 10 national field centers into entities called federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs, operated by either private contractors or non-profit organizations such as universities.
The commission also suggested that NASA establish:
-- a technical advisory board, to give the nation's space leadership innovative and more responsive advice;
-- an independent, cost-estimating body to ensure "cost realism" when judging proposals, and
-- a new research and technology organization within the agency that could sponsor high-risk, potentially high-payoff endeavors while tolerating periodic failures.
Aldridge's group also wants NASA to adopt new, more modern and more efficient personnel and management reforms than those now used by the agency. The report said NASA should adopt more standard business practices, such as spiral development of space systems and hardware, and make use of independent technical and cost assessments whenever possible.
Aldridge acknowledged it would be a long-term process to reform the way the nation conducted space exploration activities.
"The journey is at least as important as the destination," he commented. "This is a national objective, but a multi-agency involvement."
The commission recommended that the Bush administration reconstitute an oversight group within the White House to oversee space policy. Such a council was created during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, but was discontinued by President Richard M. Nixon. It was re-established during the administration of George H.W. Bush, but Bush the younger previously had rejected the idea.
If some of the commission's points appeared familiar, it was because many echoed proposals contained in earlier commission reports or internal NASA studies over the past decade.
In 1991, a group headed by Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin, proposed advanced space goals for NASA as well as making space exploration a national priority. More than two dozen other studies -- some initiated by and funded by NASA itself -- likewise called for streamlining agency purchases of space launching services.
As recently as 2002, a congressionally-mandated commission studied the future of the aerospace industry and called for extensive changes in the way the nation conducts its space activities -- including a call for more private sector involvement in launching cargoes and satellites.
The primary reason most of these recommendations have lagged has been NASA's own, historical resistance to change.
"NASA is completely incapable of reforming itself," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chair of the House subcommittee that oversees space activities.
A similar skepticism has been voiced by Rohrabacher's Senate counterpart, Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who chairs the space subcommittee. Brownback has suggested NASA be pruned and cut back to foster greater technological innovation, comparing its ways to a wild plant that has grown out of control.
Other congressional staffers, who declined to be named, said installing the changes urged by the commission would require Congressional threats to withhold funding to effect needed reforms. Nevertheless, both Rohrabacher and Brownback have expressed support for the Bush space goals and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's leadership of the troubled agency.
Not all were skeptical, however.
"NASA has (received) one of its most remarkable opportunities in more than a decade," said Brian Chase, vice-president of Washington Operations for the Space Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports U.S. space leadership located in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"Yet it also faces some of the biggest challenges," Chase added. "NASA's organization and structure has to adapt to be able to successfully execute the new vision. I think Sean O'Keefe is the right guy to make that a reality."
The commission was formed following Bush's announcement last Jan. 14 of a new vision for space exploration. That vision includes sending American astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and using the lunar surface to develop a new generation of space systems and robots capable of voyages to Mars, the asteroid belt and beyond.
The president convened the commission to review scenarios to implement the new space goals. The White House selected the 10 members from the ranks of academia and the military, as well as corporate America. Along with Aldridge, they include Carleton S. Fiorina, the chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard; Michael P. Jackson, former deputy secretary of transportation; Paul D. Spudis, a planetary scientist, and Robert S. Walker, a former Member of Congress, among others.
The commission met in five public sessions between February and May of this year, in locations that ranged from the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, to the Asia Society in New York City. They heard testimony and proposals for NASA reform from entrepreneurs, engineers, labor representatives, space groups and the media.
At the group's last session in May, O'Keefe was the last to testify, pledging in advance to work to implement the commission's findings and recommendations. O'Keefe has said he would embrace the report's proposals to remake his agency and has hinted in public he might not only adopt the proposals, but also go the reform agenda one better with even more radical ideas to reshape NASA.
Toward that end, O'Keefe is expected to unveil his own package of reform proposals soon.
Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org