A model for how the focus groups could play an even more strategic role in the future is given by MEPAG and its emulators,11 the Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG),12 the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG),13 and the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG).14 Through the drafting and promotion of timely white papers and, more importantly, the systematic documentation of key scientific goals and objectives, and by defining investigations and priorities for their respective areas of interest,15 the “AGs” have played an important role in NASA’s strategic planning exercises. Moreover, such groups provide a forum at which scientists can interact with their engineering counterparts and form the partnerships essential to the design of future spacecraft missions.
The NAI could further promote the astrobiology community’s contribution to planned and future missions by building on the present missions that include some astrobiology goals, for example the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled for launch in September 2009. One of the key questions to be addressed by MSL is the critical astrobiology objective to investigate the past and present habitability of Mars (i.e., the planet’s potential for supporting life of any kind). To perform this task the MSL payload includes several instruments that will assess the biological potential of several special regions on Mars, characterize the geology and geochemistry of those regions, investigate the planetary processes that influence habitability, and measure the surface radiation environment. The NAI should actively promote one or more focus groups to build on MSL’s habitability strategy by helping to define the scientific requirements and goals for a follow-up mission—such as the proposed Astrobiology Field Laboratory—that has the principal goal of determining if life has ever developed on Mars. A similar approach can be adopted for other potential missions that will contribute to achieving the scientific goals outlined in the Astrobiology Roadmap.
With respect to the goal of providing scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions, the committee finds that the NAI has:
Encouraged astrobiologists to provide needed recommendations and expertise to NASA for mission planning.
Promoted the participation of astrobiologists in the science teams for current and future missions. This has been an effective mechanism for involving life scientists and others in NASA programs.
Organized activities, such as focus groups, that have strongly influenced NASA missions. There are many factors that help determine a NASA mission, but this is an important way to ensure that the science is as relevant as possible.
Identified astrobiology questions that underpin most of NASA’s current flight programs. The potential discovery of the existence of life on worlds other than Earth is certainly one of the most important reasons for many NASA missions. But it must be remembered that the goals of astrobiology go beyond the search for life and encompass a far richer and broader set of questions relating to the origin and co-evolution of life and habitable environments. This breadth of goals gives astrobiology great resilience in the face of short-term programmatic changes.
The NRC’s 2003 review of NASA’s Astrobiology program recommended that “an important operational goal of astrobiology is to inform NASA missions with respect to the techniques and targets for the search for life elsewhere, and the search for clues to the steps leading to the origin of life on Earth.”16 The committee endorses this recommendation and suggests that the most critical function of the NAI is to remain central to NASA spaceflight programs.
Recommendation: Because its most critical function is to ensure that its research activities clearly contribute to NASA’s current and future spaceflight activities, the NAI should be more proactive in identifying future astrobiology missions. In addition, the NAI should actively encourage a partnership between astrobiologists and their engineering counterparts to help define future NASA missions. Although the committee