One of the engineers on NASA's Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle is an accomplished Ph.D. astrophysicist named Catherine Boone. Now working at Ball Aerospace, she helped Lockheed Martin develop a machine-vision system that Orion may one day use to dock with other spacecraft en route to Mars (AW&ST Jan. 9, p. 44). She is also a descendant of 18th century American pioneer Daniel Boone. There is something extremely fitting about one of old Daniel's offspring helping pave the way into the Solar System. Apparently, it's a very strong gene.

Normally the kind of work Catherine Boone does is called space exploration. Certainly exploring is what Orion—and its NASA managers—are all about. In its original incarnation, Orion was called the crew exploration vehicle. But at a time when the very reason for NASA's existence as an organization is being called into question, perhaps pioneering is a better word for what it can do. That's certainly the view of the Space Foundation, which took advantage of the election year just drawing to a close to take a long, hard look at NASA's role more than five decades after it was cobbled together to race the Soviets in a relatively harmless proxy for a hot war. The so-called space race seems quaint today, with astronauts and cosmonauts working together on the International Space Station.

Of course, NASA is still around, trying to support the ISS it built now that its space shuttles are museum pieces. But its direction is getting attention on Capitol Hill—site of a House hearing on the subject this week—and in the august halls of the National Academies of Science, which last week released a report on “NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus.” That report assessed whether NASA's 2011 strategic plan “remains viable.”

For G. Ryan Faith, principal author of the foundation study, the answer is clearly “no.” Faith notes that the 2011 plan does not even mention “space” in its vision and mission statements. It is time, the foundation says, to find a job for NASA and stick to it. And the job for a “healthy national civil space enterprise,” says the report, is pioneering.

“The Space Foundation defines 'pioneering' as: 1. being among those who first enter a region to open it for use and development by others; and 2. being one of a group that builds and prepares infrastructure precursors, in advance of others,” the report states right up front.

The foundation argues that NASA needs to drop tasks and infrastructure that do not support a “pioneering doctrine” of providing access to new regions, exploring them, beginning to utilize them and turning them over to another government or private organization for more routine operations. Faith and his colleagues have plenty of suggestions for how to go about that, starting with a rewrite of the Space Act that created NASA, which sets as the agency's first priority “expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.”

Drawing on military precedent such as the U.S. Navy's nuclear propulsion organization and the National Defense Sealift Fund, the Colorado Springs-based foundation's report urges a fixed five-year term, with an option to renew, for the NASA administrator and a revolving fund to pay for the program he or she develops. The administrator would get to pick a deputy—thus avoiding the petty executive-branch sniping that continues to plague Administrator Charles Bolden—but remaining in the office would depend on staying within budgets outlined in 10- and 30-year plans.

Faith interviewed more than 100 people in preparing his report (including this writer), and concluded that “there is something deep at NASA's core that needs to be fixed.”

“Whatever afflicts the space program is deeply entrenched and will not be easily changed by issuing a few recommendations without significant follow-through from NASA, Congress and the administration,” the report states, noting that then-President Bill Clinton in the 1990s was able to double the budgets for the National Institutes of Health to more than $30 billion a year in fiscal 2010 money.

In constant dollars, that is comparable to the level of funding NASA enjoyed during the height of the space race, and the report's authors found “a similar increase in NASA's budget is both reasonable and achievable.” The analysis, arguments and recommendations are worth reading in full at www.spacefoundation.org/research/pioneering

“It's important to remember that NASA is still an extraordinary organization,” says Elliot Pulham, the foundation's CEO. “In contrast to other reports on the agency, this one wasn't prompted by a crisis. It was really prompted from the point of view that this is an agency with tremendous capabilities, and a tremendous cadre of supporters who want it to do well. It's a great agency that really needs more focus.”