Astrophysics. Discover the origin, structure, evolution, and destiny of the universe, and search for Earth-like planets.
Fundamental research on profound science questions using space-based observatories and related assets is the hallmark of all four of the scientific areas identified above. In planning the future science programs for each of these disciplines, NASA works to implement the priorities defined by the NRC in its decadal surveys and other reports. These reports represent the consensus of the nation’s science communities in their respective disciplines. Roadmaps in each of the four science areas are then developed to show the pathways for implementing the NRC-defined priorities. NASA, working with the broad scientific community and in response to national initiatives and the NRC decadal surveys, creates a set of space and Earth science questions to be answered by future missions.
The activities to address these questions and objectives range from basic and applied research to contribute to the understanding of the scientific challenges, the development of technology to enable new capabilities, space mission development to acquire the vital new data, and supporting science and infrastructure systems to ensure the delivery of high-value scientific results to the scientific community and the general public.
Fundamental research develops the pioneering theories, techniques, and technologies that result in missions. Such research, which is funded internally at NASA through a series of IRAD projects and through internal and external annual solicitations such as ROSES, enables an exploration of innovative concepts in sufficient depth to determine whether they are ready for incorporation into space missions. Examples of the types of basic and applied research and supporting technology development sponsored by IRAD and ROSES include these:
Concepts for future space missions;
Theory, modeling, and analysis of mission science data;
Experimental techniques suitable for future space missions;
Aircraft, stratospheric balloon, and suborbital rocket investigations; and
Techniques for the laboratory analysis of extraterrestrial samples returned by spacecraft.
The results of the research and analysis inform and guide the scientific trade-offs and other choices that are made as missions are put together. Sponsored researchers guide the operation of robotic missions, selecting targets for observation or sampling. Once a NASA science mission launches and begins returning data, the first goal of the analysis programs is to maximize the scientific return. The new information is analyzed to advance understanding across the breadth of NASA science. Research and analysis funds are used to transform the returned data into new knowledge that may be able to answer the strategic space and Earth science questions raised by the scientific communities. Researchers publish their results in the open scientific literature. NASA also funds the archiving and distribution of these scientific data.
A very limited amount of space research is also funded from the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) through another directorate, ESMD. Examples of this basic research include cryogenic fluid management, green propulsion, energy storage, lunar dust, and in situ resource utilization (ISRU)—all of them techniques to enable humans to live off the land. As NASA’s goals have become centered on missions with timescales that in many cases are too short to benefit from basic research, the funding for basic research in space propulsion and its associated facilities and equipment has been significantly reduced. One notable remaining program is the integrated high-payoff rocket propulsion technology program, which does not, however, include any TRL 1-3 research. Virtually all space propulsion work now is developmental work. As discussed in the recent Assessment of U.S. Space Launch Vehicle Production Capacity by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the paucity of