New recommendations from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy would fold China into the 15-nation International Space Station partnership, while examining spacecraft reusability and on-orbit assembly options in lieu of the Space Launch System/Orion combination that NASA is currently developing for future U.S. human deep space missions.

The Obama administration and Congress should also lend robotic space missions, biomedical research aboard the space station and Earth observation higher priority in what the Houston think tank envisions as an era of tight federal sending.

“In today’s budget environment and what is likely to be the budget environment for some time to come, NASA needs to establish some clear and meaningful priorities,” according to a Baker Institute assessment led by senior fellow George Abbey, a former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Staying on the present course does not provide the nation with a meaningful and visionary program.”

Chinese partner status in the ISS, currently prohibited by U.S. law, would restore a much-needed dual crew access capability lost when NASA’s space shuttle program was retired in mid-2011, according to the institute’s “Spotlight on the U.S. Space Program: Problems and Solutions,” published March 11. The review finds U.S. efforts to establish a commercial crew space transportation capability by 2017 challenged by restricted spending and technical challenges. Russia’s aerospace industry, meanwhile, is coping with difficulties of its own, highlighted by the Aug. 24, 2011, loss of a Soyuz booster variant with a Progress resupply craft headed for the ISS.

The report challenges continued investments in the Space Launch System and Orion without a better defined deep-space exploration agenda. Instead, it urges efforts built on experience gained from operation of the shuttle fleet and station construction, including in-orbit assembly of spacecraft for deep-space missions and investments in fly-back boosters of the sort SpaceX is pursuing with its Grasshopper prototype.

A larger version of the reusable U.S. Air Force X-37 could be modified for crew and cargo support of the ISS as well as a role in future in-orbit assembly systems, according to the paper. The Moon should return as the most accessible laboratory for working out the operational strategies for international human missions to more ambitious deep-space destinations, according to the think tank.

In all, the Baker Institute prepared a dozen policy recommendations for the Obama administration’s second term, on topics ranging from energy and the environment to tax policy, health care and space. With regard to human exploration, the paper joins recent studies from the National Research and Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs nonprofit, in questioning the focus and sustainability of current policy. “On its present course, the United States is losing its perceived leadership role,” according to the Rice assessment, which urges the White House and Congress to build on successes forged with the ISS and its robotic planetary missions.