Continuing uncertainty over U.S. civil space policy is increasingly a safety and economic risk to the nation, according to a new report by the independent review panel charged with overseeing safety at NASA.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) finds a lack of “clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress and the White House” its primary concern, with repercussions across the space agency.

“A key point has been made by each Center that the ASAP has visited over this past year — the lack of guidance, clarity, and mission has increased the potential for risk, negative consequences to the workforce, and additional expense resulting from duplicative efforts or efforts that are ultimately determined to be unnecessary due to a change of course,” the panel says in its 2010 annual report, released Jan. 13.

Panel members urge civilian space policy players to “quickly reach a consensus position on the future of the agency and the future of the United States in space.” Among the questions they say need answers soon are just exactly what is NASA’s exploration mission, and what specific destination should it target next — an asteroid, the Moon or Mars.

“The decision affects the necessary technology programs needed to prepare for such a mission,” the panel’s report says. “More importantly, from the aspect of safety, the lack of a defined mission can negatively affect workforce morale and the ability to attract and maintain the necessary skill sets needed for this high-technology venture.”

The panel also raised a number of questions about the proposed shift to commercial crew transport to low Earth orbit, including exactly who will provide safety oversight for astronauts and the general public and how they will do it. “Clearly, uncertainty is driving the safety risk factor to a higher level, as it does in any endeavor,” the report says. “Space travel’s significant challenges merely heighten the exposure and the consequences.”

The panel’s report stresses the need for NASA to work closely with FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation as it moves toward commercial flights to the International Space Station, melding NASA’s experience operating human spacecraft with FAA’s 25-year history overseeing commercial launches.