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The Mission of Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA 2 Role of the NASA Physical Sciences Division In composing a broad mission statement for the Physical Sciences Division, the committee examined the scope of the existing research portfolio as well as NASA’s plans for the future. The issues that the committee considered in formulating a mission statement are outlined below along with the mission statement itself. The current portfolio of the PSD is centered largely on microgravity research. This 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 overwhelming majority of the portfolio involves research in fluids, combustion, materials science, fundamental physics, and biotechnology from a theoretical and experimental perspective. The Physical Sciences Division conducts this broad range of research using an extensive cadre of ground-based and flight investigators. Flight investigators employ an array of carriers ranging from the International Space Station to KC-135 aircraft. The PSD program infrastructure consists of these platforms as well as the engineering and technical development support provided to investigators. The committee was asked to consider the recent expansion of the PSD research portfolio to include biomolecular physics and chemistry, nanotechnology, and technology relevant to human exploration and development of space—research areas in which reduced gravity does not necessarily play an important role. The committee is, in principle, in favor of PSD plans to take on these new areas since they are relevant to questions of both scientific and practical importance to NASA. The Physical Sciences Division, with its strong record and tradition of supporting intradisciplinary research and its extensive experience in the study of fundamental phenomena, is the most suitable division in NASA to address these new research areas. For example, phenomena important to the development of nanomaterials, such as behavior at fluid-fluid and fluid-solid interfaces, has been extensively studied in the division’s program in fluid physics. In assuming these new responsibilities, the PSD should strive to avoid sacrificing or jeopardizing the investment in programs and the proven capabilities it has developed by carrying out research in a microgravity environment. Over the past 20 years, the PSD has built up the expertise, skills, infrastructure, and facilities to design and execute sophisticated experiments in space. There is an abundance of fascinating new scientific questions—ranging from fundamental physical laws governing matter, space, and time, to basic fluid flow, materials, and combustion phenomena—that require a microgravity environment to elucidate. 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. Although the PSD can and should make an impact in these new areas, it is the capability to carry out experiments in space and in microgravity conditions that makes the PSD a distinctive, and indeed unique, research organization. When selecting research topics in 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 scientific challenges at the interfaces between the physical sciences, engineering, and biology in support of NASA’s mission, preferentially capitalizing on existing expertise or infrastructure in the Division of Physical Sciences, and Support research either not typically funded by other agencies or to be conducted in close partnership with other agencies. The committee has encompassed all of these considerations in a mission statement for the Physical Sciences Division:
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The Mission of Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA 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.
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