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Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era of Space Exploration Executive Summary In early 2009 the National Research Council’s Committee for the Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space began work on a study to establish priorities and recommendations for life and physical sciences research in microgravity and partial gravity for the decade 2010-2020. This effort represents the first decadal survey conducted for these fields. The committee is being assisted in this work by seven appointed panels, each focused on a broad area of life and physical sciences research. The study is considering research in two general categories: (1) research enabled by unique aspects of the space environment as a tool to advance fundamental and applied scientific knowledge and (2) research that enables the advances in basic and applied knowledge needed to expand exploration capabilities. The project’s statement of task calls for delivery of two reports—an interim report and a final survey report. PURPOSE OF THIS INTERIM REPORT During the period of the decadal survey’s development, NASA received guidance in the fiscal year 2011 presidential budget request that directed it to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020. This step considerably altered both the research capacity and the role of the ISS in any future program of life and physical sciences microgravity research. In addition, the budget initiated other potential changes that might affect both the organization and the scale of these programs at NASA. The purpose of this interim report is to provide timely input to the ongoing reorganization of programs related to life and physical sciences microgravity research, as well as to near-term planning or replanning of ISS research. Although the development of specific recommendations is deferred until the final report, this interim report does attempt to identify programmatic needs and issues to guide near-term decisions that the committee has concluded are critical to strengthening the organization and management of life and physical sciences research at NASA. This report also identifies a number of broad topics that represent near-term opportunities for ISS research. Topics discussed briefly in this interim report reflect the committee’s preliminary examination of a subset of the issues and topics that will be covered in greater depth in the final decadal survey report. PROGRAMMATIC ISSUES FOR STRENGTHENING THE RESEARCH ENTERPRISE As the result of major reorganizations and shifting priorities within the past decade at NASA, there is currently no clear institutional home within the agency for the various scientific endeavors that are focused on understanding how biological and physical systems behave in low-gravity environments. As NASA moves to rebuild or restructure programs focused on these activities, it will have to consider what elements to include in that program. In its preliminary analysis, the committee has identified a number of critical needs for a successful renewed research endeavor in life and physical sciences. These include: Elevating the priority of research in the agenda for space exploration; Selecting research likely to provide value to an optimal range of future mission designs; Developing a comprehensive database that is accessible to the scientific community;
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Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era of Space Exploration Implementing a translational science component to ensure bidirectional interactions between basic science and the development of new mission options; and Encouraging, and then accommodating, team science approaches to what are inherently complex multidisciplinary challenges. In addition, as noted repeatedly by the scientific community that has provided input to this study, reasonable stability and predictability of research funding are critical to ensuring productive and sustained progress toward research goals in any program. In the context of an institutional home for an integrated research agenda, the committee noted that program leadership and execution are likely to be productive only if aggregated under a single management structure and housed in a NASA directorate or other key organization that understands the value of science and has the vision to see its potential application in future exploration missions. Ultimately, any successful research program would need to be directed by a leader of significant gravitas who is in a position of authority within the agency and has the communication skills to ensure that the entire agency understands and concurs with the key objective to support and conduct high-fidelity, high-quality, high-value research. INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES The International Space Station provides a unique platform for research, and past studies have noted the critical importance of its research capabilities to support the goal of long-term human exploration in space.1 Although it is difficult to predict the timing for the transition of important research questions from ground- to space-based investigations, the committee identifies in this interim report a number of broad topics that represent near-term opportunities for ISS research. These topics, which are not prioritized, fall under the following general areas: Plant and microbial research to increase fundamental knowledge of the gravitational response and potentially to advance goals for the development of bioregenerative life support; Behavioral research to mitigate the detrimental effects of the spaceflight environment on astronauts’ functioning and health; Human and animal biology research to increase basic understanding of the effects of spaceflight on biological systems and to develop critically needed countermeasures to mitigate the negative biological effects of spaceflight on astronauts’ health, safety, and performance; Physical sciences research to explore fundamental laws of the universe and basic physical phenomena in the absence of the confounding effects of gravity; and Translational and applied research in physical sciences that can provide a foundation of knowledge for the development of systems and technologies enabling human and robotic exploration. This report contains discussion of various topics within each of these areas. The committee notes, however, that although the ISS is a key component of research infrastructure that will need to be utilized by a biological and physical research sciences program, it is only one component of a healthy program. Other platforms will play an important role and, in particular, research on the ISS will need to be supported by a parallel ground-based program to be scientifically credible. 1 See, for example, National Research Council, Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006.