WASHINGTON - NASA, the agency that epitomized the "Right Stuff," seems 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 one place the White House wants to send astronauts - an asteroid - doesn't seem to be getting the engines firing at NASA, they said.
"More than two years after the president announced the interim goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025, there has been little effort to initiate such a mission," said the report by a panel from the distinguished National Academy of Sciences.
In another 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 report doesn't blame the space agency; it faults President Obama, Congress and the nation for not giving NASA better direction.
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 has never seen the space agency so adrift.
"I think people (at NASA) want to be focused a little more and know where they are going," Crippen told The Associated Press.
NASA spokesman David Weaver defended the agency, saying in an emailed statement that it has 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.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said he had nothing to add beyond NASA's comments.
On Tuesday, just ahead of the report, NASA announced plans for a new Mars rover in 2020 in a sequel to the successful Curiosity mission.
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.
Obama told the space agency in 2010 to plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a training ground for an eventual Mars landing. But the panel said there is little support within NASA.