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Science in NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration
The appropriate science in a vibrant space program is, therefore, nothing less than that science that will transform our understanding of the universe around us, and will in time transform us into a space-faring civilization that extends the human presence across the solar system.
NASA has embarked on a strategic planning activity that is built around 13 top-level agency objectives (see Chapter 2). The committee has reviewed the objectives, particularly those relating to science, and finds them to be comprehensive and appropriate. They have the potential to encompass all of the scientific topics that should be pursued under NASA’ s broad mission statement, which in turn is supported by the recent policy directives governing NASA. However, to be thorough and effective, strategic planning will require much forethought and the involvement of a diverse scientific community, because many of the scientific and technological challenges cut across several of the agency’s objectives.
The breadth of NASA’s top-level strategic objectives is an important strength. The topics do not distinguish between science and human exploration but rather reflect the recognition that each objective offers the opportunity both to advance and to benefit from understanding of the universe in which we live, and each is a worthy endeavor in a robust space exploration program. The committee believes that exploration, in the broad sense defined in this report, is the proper goal for NASA.
The committee recommends that, as planning roadmaps are developed to pursue NASA’s objectives and as priorities are set among them, decisions be based on the potential for making the greatest impact and that the strategic roadmaps do the following:
Emphasize the critical scientific or technical breakthroughs that are possible, and in some cases necessary, and
Highlight how a vibrant space program can be achieved by selecting from an array of approaches to realizing potential breakthroughs across the full spectrum of goals embodied in NASA’s mission statement.
For many years priorities for space science research have been developed and recommended through decadal surveys conducted under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC). These studies use a consensus process to identify the most important, potentially revolutionary science that should be undertaken within the span of a decade, and numerous mission and program concepts that do not meet this standard are not pursued. In that sense NASA’s science program currently is and always has been planned with the intent to generate the paradigm-altering science that NASA should undertake.
The committee considered how NRC science strategies and other reports can contribute to NASA’s strategic planning process, and it makes the following recommendations:
The most recent NRC decadal surveys for the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, solar system exploration, solar and space physics, and the interface between fundamental physics and cosmology do provide appropriate guidance regarding the science that is critical for the next decade of space exploration. The committee recommends that these reports—Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium (2000), New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy (2002), The Sun to the Earth—and Beyond: A Decadal Research Strategy in Solar and Space Physics (2002), and Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos: Eleven Science Questions for the New Century (2003)—be used as the primary scientific starting points to guide the development of NASA’s strategic roadmaps that include these areas.
Other highly relevant, discipline-specific NRC studies provide guidance for prioritizing critically important biomedical and microgravity research that must be conducted to enable human space exploration. 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