Executive Summary

The portfolio of the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) at NASA is centered largely on microgravity research, which includes research on the effects of gravity on a wide array of physical and chemical processes, as well as the use of reduced gravity to perform experiments that cannot be undertaken on Earth. The majority of the current PSD portfolio consists of research in the following disciplines:

  • Fluid behavior,

  • Combustion science,

  • Materials science,

  • Fundamental physics, and

  • Biotechnology.

Research in each of these areas has been performed by an extensive cadre of ground-based and flight investigators from academia, government, and industry, with the flight investigators utilizing an array of carriers ranging from the International Space Station to KC-135 aircraft. The access to the microgravity environment provided by these platforms, and the extensive engineering and technical support provided to the investigators, are distinctive assets offered by the PSD research program.1

As a result of recent NASA reorganizations and the realignment of research areas, the Committee on Microgravity Research was asked to consider the expanded portfolio of the PSD, which now includes biomolecular physics and chemistry, nanotechnology, and technology relevant to human exploration and development of space (HEDS). These are research areas in which reduced gravity does not necessarily play an important role. Specifically, in this Phase I report, the committee was asked to identify, in general terms, research opportunities within these broad new areas that could profitably be pursued by the PSD. It should be noted that when identifying new opportunities the committee considered only research that fell within these new areas defined by NASA. In addition, the committee was asked to develop an overall mission statement that would encompass the expanded portfolio of the physical sciences research program, and broad guidelines for determining whether specific research questions should fall within the expanded program.

MISSION STATEMENT FOR NASA’S DIVISION OF PHYSICAL SCIENCES

In composing a broad mission statement for PSD research, the committee examined the scope of the program’s existing research portfolio as well as NASA’s plans for the future. The committee is, in principle, in favor of PSD plans to take on the new areas of biomolecular physics and chemistry, nanotechnology, and research supporting HEDS technology development, since they are relevant to questions of both scientific and practical importance to NASA. For example, novel insights into nanoscale phenomena and the availability of an increasing number of nanoanalytical tools will have a major impact on NASA’s ability to generate and store power in space, manufacture lightweight materials on the ground and in space, design materials with integrated sensory functions, and develop new sensor technologies. With its strong record and tradition of supporting basic and cross-disciplinary research at the interfaces between physical sciences, engineering, and lately cellular biotechnology, as well as extensive experience in the study of fundamental phenomena, the PSD is the most suitable division at

1  

For research in life sciences, NASA’s Fundamental Space Biology Division and Bioastronautics Research Division provide similar support.



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The Mission of Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA Executive Summary The portfolio of the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) at NASA is centered largely on microgravity research, which includes research on the effects of gravity on a wide array of physical and chemical processes, as well as the use of reduced gravity to perform experiments that cannot be undertaken on Earth. The majority of the current PSD portfolio consists of research in the following disciplines: Fluid behavior, Combustion science, Materials science, Fundamental physics, and Biotechnology. Research in each of these areas has been performed by an extensive cadre of ground-based and flight investigators from academia, government, and industry, with the flight investigators utilizing an array of carriers ranging from the International Space Station to KC-135 aircraft. The access to the microgravity environment provided by these platforms, and the extensive engineering and technical support provided to the investigators, are distinctive assets offered by the PSD research program.1 As a result of recent NASA reorganizations and the realignment of research areas, the Committee on Microgravity Research was asked to consider the expanded portfolio of the PSD, which now includes biomolecular physics and chemistry, nanotechnology, and technology relevant to human exploration and development of space (HEDS). These are research areas in which reduced gravity does not necessarily play an important role. Specifically, in this Phase I report, the committee was asked to identify, in general terms, research opportunities within these broad new areas that could profitably be pursued by the PSD. It should be noted that when identifying new opportunities the committee considered only research that fell within these new areas defined by NASA. In addition, the committee was asked to develop an overall mission statement that would encompass the expanded portfolio of the physical sciences research program, and broad guidelines for determining whether specific research questions should fall within the expanded program. MISSION STATEMENT FOR NASA’S DIVISION OF PHYSICAL SCIENCES In composing a broad mission statement for PSD research, the committee examined the scope of the program’s existing research portfolio as well as NASA’s plans for the future. The committee is, in principle, in favor of PSD plans to take on the new areas of biomolecular physics and chemistry, nanotechnology, and research supporting HEDS technology development, since they are relevant to questions of both scientific and practical importance to NASA. For example, novel insights into nanoscale phenomena and the availability of an increasing number of nanoanalytical tools will have a major impact on NASA’s ability to generate and store power in space, manufacture lightweight materials on the ground and in space, design materials with integrated sensory functions, and develop new sensor technologies. With its strong record and tradition of supporting basic and cross-disciplinary research at the interfaces between physical sciences, engineering, and lately cellular biotechnology, as well as extensive experience in the study of fundamental phenomena, the PSD is the most suitable division at 1   For research in life sciences, NASA’s Fundamental Space Biology Division and Bioastronautics Research Division provide similar support.

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The Mission of Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA NASA to address the new areas of nanoscale materials and processes, biomolecular physics and chemistry, cellular biophysics and chemistry, and integrated systems for HEDS. However, the committee notes that over the past 20 years the PSD has built up a unique set of expertise, skills, infrastructure, and facilities that allow it to design and execute sophisticated experiments in space. Access to the microgravity environment continues to be a necessary requirement for the elucidation of a host of scientific questions, ranging from fundamental physical laws to basic fluid flow, materials, and combustion phenomena. In fact, a large program of experiments in these areas, representing a considerable investment of time and effort by the scientific community, is now awaiting flight on the International Space Station. Therefore the committee recommends that while assuming responsibilities for new areas, the PSD should strive not to sacrifice or jeopardize the investment in research programs and proven capabilities that it has developed to date. When selecting research topics in the emerging areas involving nanotechnology, including nanoscale materials and processes, biomolecular physics and chemistry, cellular biophysics and chemistry, and integrated systems for HEDS, the PSD should focus on those that meet both of the following criteria: Directly address challenges at the interface between the physical sciences, engineering, and biology in support of NASA’s mission, preferentially capitalizing on existing expertise or infrastructure in the Physical Sciences Division, and Support research either not typically funded by other agencies or to be conducted in close partnership with other agencies. The committee encompassed all of these considerations in a mission statement for the Physical Sciences Division: The mission of the Physical Sciences Division is threefold: to conduct research in a low-gravity environment; to probe the role of gravity in physical processes; and to investigate the fundamental physical principles behind emerging technologies relevant to NASA’s mission. NEW RESEARCH AREAS The new areas being added to the PSD program encompass emerging fields and thus can be characterized in various ways. To minimize overlap, the committee divided the areas into (1) nanoscale materials and processes, (2) biomolecular physics and chemistry, (3) cellular biophysics and chemistry, and (4) integrated systems for HEDS. A unifying theme of nearly all the research in these areas is that the processes of interest occur at the nanoscale. The confluence of the biological, physical, and engineering sciences at the nanoscale is an ideal area for NASA to effectively leverage the investments made by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other organizations to accelerate its own mission. Further, the committee believes that these areas do provide promising opportunities to build on PSD’s scientific capabilities and leverage its current research activities. However, because the PSD is likely to have only limited resources for research in these very broad fields of endeavor, it should seek out those research niches where its unique capabilities and expertise will allow it to have a maximum impact. The committee selected a few examples, listed below, of broad research topics within each of the new areas that would meet the recommended selection criteria. Many other suitable topics are likely to emerge from the research community in the coming years. Nanoscale Materials and Processes Nanoparticle formation Integrated nanomaterials Micro- and nanofluidics

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The Mission of Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA Biomolecular Chemistry and Physics Proteins in confined space Energy storage and chemically driven nanosystems Smart and self-healing materials Cellular Biophysics and Chemistry Long-term stabilization of cell cultures Low-gravity effects on cellular and subcellular processes Integrated Systems for HEDS System integration of nanoengineered particles and devices