• Plant and Microbial Biology Panel, and
• Translation to Space Exploration Systems Panel.
After appointment, members received documents and hours of briefings from NASA, as well as from commercial and academic authorities on biological and physical science matters, pertaining to previous utilization of National Academies reports; NASA’s research facilities, capabilities, procedures, and needs for exploration; lunar exploration and habitation; the International Space Station (ISS) as a platform for physical and biological research; the potential for and feasibility of commercial platforms; and research findings from space which, when combined with the extensive literature on microgravity and partial-gravity research, became the basis for recommendations, priorities, and timetables.
The report is divided into 13 chapters that summarize the deliberations of the committee and input of its seven panels of experts. Information, perspectives, and advice were obtained from the general public and experts in the field through town halls at professional society meetings and from solicited white papers from informed and concerned scientists. Various representatives of past and current NASA programs, experts from a range of disciplines, and speakers from private companies that are increasingly involved in space exploration all provided briefings to the panels and the committee.
Before presenting the findings of this decadal survey, the committee considered lessons learned from humankind’s long experience with exploration and with the challenges of progressively broadening the frontiers of the known world. Throughout human history, exploration has driven some of our most inspiring achievements and profound discoveries. By discovering that the stars at night were distant points in a three-dimensional space, humans realized that Earth is not flat and that it is not the center of the universe. We gained the courage to travel over great distances and discovered new lands, new materials, and new resources. Moreover, the process of exploration resulted in new ways of thinking about the world and ourselves. For example, the quest to explore exacerbated the risk of incurring serious diseases, such as scurvy, which led to new ways of understanding health and illness (e.g., the importance of nutrition). Exploration inspired competition and government backing to develop new technologies, such as methods for accurate navigation (e.g., John Harrison’s time pieces to derive accurate measures of longitude). The drive to explore continues today, and the key frontier of the future is space.
Multiple and varied platforms have and will continue to contribute to the acquisition of knowledge and to the enhancement of exploration. The ISS will play a pivotal role as a dedicated experimental laboratory for biological and physical research. Additionally, the promise that commercial transportation may one day provide operational platforms for microgravity and partial-gravity research should not be ignored.
Many believe that humanity is destined for a future in space. However, even with all of the resources of Earth, the enormous challenges of space voyages will not be overcome unless guided by significantly enhanced scientific research. In this context, it is interesting to review lessons learned from the history of Earth-based exploration.
Exploration has always been shaped by scientific and engineering research confronting new challenges. It took many years to learn how to deal with the destruction of wooden-hulled ships by Toredo worms; it took more years yet to learn that ships were jeopardized by galvanic interactions between the copper sheathing of hulls, which was effective against the worms, and ships’ iron bolts. It is likely that similar unanticipated problems and solutions will be encountered in the hazardous environment of space, where materials are exposed to radiation, extreme temperatures, and microgravity.
In addition to the scientific understanding of materials and structures, exploration is shaped by the responses of crews to novel and severe environments. For instance, contested authority lines and crew frictions were the rule, not the exception, in early explorations, particularly when vessels sailed beyond the reach of their home governance. As humankind confronts unknown and extreme environments, it is only a matter of time before we encounter new disease pathogenesis. Thus, we can anticipate that new and unforeseen nutritional and radiation problems will pose major challenges for crew health, safety, and performance in space.
In the history of exploration, the importance of staging areas cannot be overestimated. Staging areas for navigation (e.g., the Canary Islands) were vital in acclimating sailors to voyages of increasing distances from “home.” Such staging areas were also vital as trading depots where stockpiles for protracted voyages could be stored. Discovery of new food types and food preparation techniques, as well as new sources of water, were key