WASHINGTON - NASA, the agency that epitomized the Right Stuff, looks lost in space and doesn't have a clear sense of where it is going, an independent panel of science and engineering experts said in a stinging report Wednesday.
The report by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences doesn't blame NASA; it faults the president, Congress, and the nation for not giving better direction. It also said NASA was doing little to further a White House goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid.
In one withering passage, the panel said NASA's mission and vision statements are so vague and "generic" that they "could apply to almost any government research and development agency, omitting even the words 'aeronautics' or 'space.' "
The space shuttles were retired in 2011 and are now museum pieces. Few people are paying attention to the International Space Station, and American astronauts have to rely on Russian spaceships to get there and back. Meanwhile, rocket-building is being outsourced to private companies, and a commercial venture plans to send people to the moon by the end of the decade.
Academy panel member Bob Crippen, a retired NASA manager and astronaut who piloted the first space shuttle mission, said he had never seen the space agency so adrift.
NASA spokesman David Weaver defended the agency, saying in an e-mailed statement that it had clear and challenging goals. He listed several projects, including continued use of the International Space Station and efforts to develop a heavy-duty rocket and crew capsule capable of taking astronauts into deep space.
John Logsdon, a space-policy expert who advised the Obama campaign in 2008, said the panel's report, which is more strongly worded than usual for the academy, "rather fairly points its fingers at the White House."
"There's a general sense of disappointment that the administration has not been more bold and visionary in setting out a path for the program," said Logsdon, who was not on the panel.
American University policy professor Howard McCurdy, who was not on the panel, said he sees the problem more as a lack of money than a lack of goals.