It is now time for NASA to return to a high level of programmatic vision and dedication to life and physical sciences research, to ensure that the considerable obstacles to long-duration human exploration missions in space can be resolved. As has always been the case, achievement of these goals will depend on a steady input of innovative high-quality research results. In turn, high-quality research will depend on NASA embracing life and physical sciences research as part of its core exploration mission and re-energizing a community of life and physical scientists and engineers focused on both exploration-enabling research and scientific discovery (i.e., fundamental research enabled by space exploration).
The committee concluded that considerable programmatic efforts will be required to overcome current obstacles, secure the trust of the scientific community, and restore the life and physical sciences research program to a committed, comprehensive, and highly visible organizational resource that effectively promotes research to meet the national space exploration agenda. Issues that are important in achieving these goals are discussed in the following sections.
As the nation and NASA prepare for the next decade of space exploration, numerous challenges must be met to ensure successful results. Among these challenges are the developments needed to reduce risks and costs, which will come from a deeper understanding of the performance of people, animals, microbes, plants, materials, and engineered systems in the environments of space. To meet these challenges, which span life and physical sciences, it is essential to develop a long-term strategic research plan, firmly anchored both within NASA and in a broad and diverse extramural research community. For such a plan to become a reality, research must be central to NASA’s exploration mission and be supported throughout the agency as an essential means to achieve future space exploration goals. Feedback, associated with this decadal survey received from numerous interviews, town hall meetings, and white paper submissions, indicated that a large proportion of the research community does not see such an environment for life and physical sciences within the current exploration programs at NASA.
NASA has overcome a number of obstacles 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 included the ability to select and prioritize the most meritorious research projects, the provision of adequate and sustained support for such research projects, and the ability to attract a community of researchers with the necessary skills and experiences to conduct these studies and to create a new generation of scientists and engineers focused on research to answer questions relevant for space exploration missions. To continue to meet such 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 its organizational structure be optimally designed to meet NASA’s needs. The utility of a coherent research plan that is appropriately resourced and consistently applied to enable exploration cannot be overemphasized. This is especially noteworthy in light of the frequent and large 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 promoted and embraced horizontally and vertically throughout the organizational structure of NASA. Multiple factors have resulted in NASA life and physical sciences research being relegated to a very low priority, with many areas virtually eliminated. Since retirement of the Spacelab (in 1999) and the completion of the International Neurolab project (mission conducted in 1998), during 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 the research endeavor and the success of future exploration missions. The perception that research is 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 reward system for flight missions. Currently, astronauts can opt out of their participation in approved and manifested research projects, both in terms of serving as a subject and acting as a surrogate investigator for a research project. For example,