Elevating the Priority of Life and Physical Sciences Research in Space Exploration

When NASA was established by Congress in 1958, its critical roles as both the driver and the beneficiary of future U.S. scientific and technological advances were widely recognized. It is noteworthy that the enabling of scientific inquiry by space exploration was a critical issue during the inception of the agency and, half a century later, the promotion of scientific and technological advancement endures as a key imperative for NASA. Scientific advances go to the core of the NASA mission because they enable future space exploration.

As the nation and NASA prepare for the next decade of space exploration, numerous challenges must be met to ensure successful outcomes. Among these are the developments needed to buy down risks and costs, an effort that will depend on a deeper understanding of the performance of people, materials, microbes and plant life, and physical systems in the environments of space. To meet these challenges, which span the life and physical sciences, it is essential to develop a long-term, strategic research plan firmly anchored in a broad research community. For such a plan to become a reality, research must be central to NASA’s exploration mission and be embraced throughout the agency as an essential tool to achieve future space exploration goals. Feedback received by the committee from numerous interviews, town hall meetings, and white paper submissions associated with this decadal survey indicated that a very large proportion of the research community does not see such an environment currently within the exploration programs at NASA, at least with regard to the life and physical sciences.

NASA has faced a number of challenges in fulfilling the original objectives identified by Congress. It has been a challenge from the outset to organize and manage the life and physical sciences research program within the overall NASA administrative infrastructure. Some of the organizational challenges have included the ability to select and prioritize the most meritorious research projects, the provision of adequate and sustained support for such research projects, the ability to draw on a community of scientists with the necessary skills and experience to conduct these studies, and the ability and will to create a new generation of scientists and engineers focused on research questions relevant for space exploration missions. To meet these challenges, it is of paramount importance that the life and physical sciences research portfolio supported by NASA, both extramurally and intramurally, receive appropriate attention and that the organizational structure be optimally designed to meet NASA’s needs. The utility of a coherent research plan that provides appropriate resources and is consistently applied to enable exploration cannot be overemphasized. This is especially the case given the frequent and lengthy postponements that NASA’s exploration-related goals have experienced over the past several decades.

The NASA exploration research enterprise will be improved only if it is emphasized throughout the organizational structure of NASA. Because the agency prioritized goals for building flight infrastructure for the Constellation Project at the expense of maintaining a vigorous life and physical sciences research program, this important research program has been relegated to a very-low-priority status with many areas virtually eliminated. Since retirement of the Spacelab (in 1997) and the completion of the International Neurolab project (mission conducted in 1998)—in which many sophisticated experiments took place in the context of dedicated research missions implemented by a highly trained and intellectually engaged crew—the priority for research has been reduced to levels that compromise not only the research endeavor but also the likelihood of success in future exploration missions. The view of research as optional, rather than essential, is reflected in the attitudes of flight and ground personnel toward crew participation in research projects and appears to be driven by NASA’s overall expectations and its reward system for flight missions. Currently, astronauts can opt out of their participation in approved and manifested research projects, in terms of both serving as a subject in and acting as a surrogate investigator for a research project. Mission managers, who often have no research background and are not given incentives to place a priority on research, have the authority to control crew availability and make decisions about crew scheduling that can compromise research studies and outcomes, even when acceptable alternatives to these competing activities are available.

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