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Review of NASA’s Biomedical Research Program
The NRA program and NSBRI core funding provide the major sources of support for space biomedical research, although human studies are a significant component of the Space Life Sciences Directorate at JSC. The headquarters NRA program supports investigator-initiated ground-based and spaceflight research in all relevant disciplines through a universal peer review process to which NASA intramural scientists as well as extramural investigators can apply. Disciplinary research carried out at both Ames and JSC is funded by this program and is summarized in the relevant disciplinary chapters of this report. The primary mission of NSBRI-funded investigators is basic research aimed at the development of countermeasures, while countermeasure evaluation and testing are assigned to and supported by JSC. Program oversight is carried out by the headquarters Office of Life Sciences, although NSBRI operates with a high degree of autonomy.
For the present report, the committee was charged to map the current NASA-supported biomedical research program to the recommendations of the Strategy report, not to evaluate in detail the quality of the research being conducted. Thus, this report presents findings and conclusions but makes few specific recommendations beyond those contained in the 1998 Strategy report. These findings and conclusions are highlighted in the body of this report. It should be emphasized that the Strategy report was released only in September 1998, and the “current” program, as detailed in 1998 and 1999 program documents, was therefore put in place prior to issuance of that report. The FY 2000 NRA and NSBRI research solicitations represent the first opportunities for NASA to respond to specific recommendations of the Strategy report, and the programmatic priorities indicated in these announcements are discussed in discipline-specific chapters of the present report.
The 1998 Strategy report assessed research needs in the broad spectrum of disciplinary areas relevant to the health and performance of astronauts in space, ranging from cell and developmental biology, through the major physiological systems—bone and muscle, cardiopulmonary, endocrinology and nutrition, and immunology and microbiology—to radiation hazards and issues related to behavior and performance, and made specific disciplinary recommendations in each. In addition, the report considered overall biomedical research priorities and recommended that the highest priority for NASA-supported biomedical research be given to problems that may limit astronauts’ ability to survive and/or function in prolonged spaceflight. Six issues were identified: (a) loss of weight-bearing bone and muscle; (b) vestibular function, the vestibulo-ocular reflex and sensorimotor integration; (c) orthostatic intolerance upon return to Earth gravity; (d) radiation hazards; (e) physiological effects of stress; and (f) psychological and social issues. A wide range of approaches was recommended, aimed at understanding fundamental mechanisms of effects induced by spaceflight and the development of effective, mechanism-based countermeasures.
In order to assess the extent to which the existing overall biomedical research program is aligned with the recommendations of the Strategy report, the committee considered the number of specific projects and the range of research activities that were ongoing within the disciplinary and subdisciplinary components of the NRA program and NSBRI for FY 1998 and FY 1999 funding years. In addition, the current total discipline and subdiscipline funding was estimated as a rough index of the priority given to the various research areas. Differences in grant accounting methods as well as overlaps in disciplinary research content among programs made it difficult in some cases for the committee to define precise budgetary figures. The total NASA funding in FY 1999 for the conduct of research in the Biomedical Research and Countermeasures (BR&C) program, which, in addition to biomedical NRA grants and core support for NSBRI, includes funds for the radiation NSCORT and biomedical support projects, was approximately $36 million. A pie chart summarizing NASA’s estimate of budget figures for disciplinary programs within BR&C in FY 1999 is presented in Figure 1.1. Total FY 1999 NSBRI research funding, most of which was provided by BR&C, was approximately $1 million each for the eight areas