The Space Studies Board is a unit of the National Research Council, which serves as an independent advisor to the federal government on scientific and technical questions of national importance. The Research Council, jointly administered by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, brings the resources of the entire scientific and technical community to bear through its volunteer advisory committees.
Support for the work of the Space Studies Board and its committees and task groups was provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration contracts NASW-4627 and NASW-96013, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contracts 50-DGNE-5-00210 and 50-DKNA-6-90040.
From the Chair
Future historians of the civil space program may well look back to 1996 as a pivotal year. Although the turmoil of the recent past has not vanished, it does seem greatly diminished. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration appears to be settling into a new organizational mind-set with a new paradigm, “smaller, faster, cheaper.” The operations of the space shuttle have been privatized, development of the International Space Station lurches forward over technical and political barriers, U.S. astronauts are regular longterm residents of the Russian MIR space station, and the Earth Observing System continues to survive political scrutiny as it moves closer to reality. Researchers and the public are treated to a progression of stunning images of the solar system and the cosmos from an unprecedented armada of operating science missions. Convergence between the civil and military space programs seems assured, as NASA and the Department of Defense divide responsibility for developing new launchers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration teams with the DOD to plan a single weather satellite system.
Not surprisingly, most of the 1996 reports of the Space Studies Board address issues relevant to a space program in transition. These include reviews and assessments of specific programs as well as more pointed commentary on questions of science management. Other reports are a study on data archiving in the maturing multidiscipline of microgravity research and a technical consideration of our state of knowledge and ignorance about radiation hazards to future interplanetary travelers.
The discovery of possible evidence for life on Mars may be the major event of 1996 for the space program, although it emerged from scrutiny of a martian meteorite found on Earth. Following the announcement and media attention, the White House and NASA asked the Board to help convene a workshop to consider major questions and future directions for space science. Over the course of three days, a diverse group of astronomers, planetary scientists, and biologists, many of whom had never met before, realized that their several scientific disciplines were all converging on a core theme of “Origins.” The study of the martian meteorite, which catalyzed the workshop, was only one of many recent results tracing key events that led from the big bang to the emergence of life. Origins connects exobiology and the search for planets to the origin of structure in the universe, the origin of galaxies and stars, the origin of the chemical elements, stellar influences on planetary habitats, and so forth. The findings (reproduced here in an appendix) were transmitted to Vice President Al Gore. In December he invited many of the workshop participants and several others to a symposium at the White House, which he led with well-informed questions about technical matters and about the broader philosophical and religious implications of possible life on Mars. In a statement issued
at its conclusion, Mr. Gore aptly characterized the discussion as “exhilarating and thought-provoking.” Subsequent events suggest that it was also of tangible benefit in the administration’s consideration of future NASA budgets.
Looking back, 1996 was an extraordinarily busy year for the Board, its standing committees, and special task groups. But at this writing, halfway through 1997, our activities are undiminished, with several major reports already released, and others nearing completion or newly initiated. The dedication of hundreds of overcommitted scientists who literally and figuratively give freely of their time to these endeavors merits the acknowledgment of their peers and of the policy makers who are informed by their advice.
Space Studies Board