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Science in NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration
recommendations presented in A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century (NRC, 1998)5 remain valid today. That report surveyed the current state of research on the physiological and psychosocial responses of humans to spaceflight and identified the highest-priority questions that require attention to improve the feasibility of extended-duration human spaceflight missions. Priority areas included “research aimed at understanding and ameliorating problems that may limit astronauts’ ability to survive and/or function during prolonged spaceflight” (p. 2) and crosscutting research on musculoskeletal and vestibular physiology, radiation hazards, psychological and social issues, and plant and animal sensitivity to gravity.
Finally, but equally importantly, two key studies are available that provide timely guidance about the major research issues for physical science research in reduced gravity. Microgravity Research in Support of Technologies for the Human Exploration and Development of Space and Planetary Bodies (NRC, 2000) addresses critical aspects of research to enable development of technologies that will be needed for the human exploration of space. This topic was also a key element of the study Assessment of Directions in Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA (NRC, 2003), which prioritized areas of microgravity research in terms of their strategic importance with respect to NASA’s long-term capability to pursue human space exploration. Both reports cited the need for enabling research in areas such as combustion and fire safety, multiphase flow and heat transfer, interfacial phenomena, and indirect effects of reduced gravity.
Consequently, the committee concludes that already-published National Research Council studies provide highly relevant discipline-specific guidance for prioritizing critically important research that must be conducted to enable the human exploration of space. The committee recommends that these reports—A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century (1998), Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions (2001), Factors Affecting the Utilization of the International Space Station for Research in the Biological and Physical Sciences (2002), Microgravity Research in Support of Technologies for the Human Exploration and Development of Space and Planetary Bodies (2000), and Assessment of Directions in Microgravity and Physical Sciences Research at NASA (2003)—be used as a starting point for setting priorities for research conducted on the International Space Station so that it directly supports future human exploration missions.
PRIORITY SETTING IN THE CONTEXT OF HUMAN EXPLORATION
In NASA’s new exploration vision, the relevance of the studies cited above must be judged in the light of the presence of humans in space. The studies for astronomy and astrophysics, fundamental physics and cosmology, solar system exploration, and solar and space physics were prepared before the vision for space exploration appeared and were conducted without regard to scientific opportunities provided by human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. For example, they do not address what scientific research is required before sending explorers far from Earth, nor do they consider either the new opportunities for research made possible by human exploration or the potential incompatibilities of already-identified research with human missions. Given these new perspectives, some individual research discipline communities have begun to consider whether current priorities should be reexamined. The answers to questions about potential reassessments of priorities are likely to vary from discipline to discipline. For example, the committee does not find any compelling arguments for changing the priorities for the period 2000-2010 set forth in Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium; a forthcoming report of the NRC is expected to address the question in more detail.6
See also National Research Council, Review of NASA’s Biomedical Research Program (NRC, 2000) and Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions (NRC, 2001).
“Progress in Astronomy and Astrophysics Toward the Decadal Vision,” letter report, in preparation.