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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2010. Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12903.


On October 15, 2008, President Obama signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, which authorizes appropriations to NASA for fiscal year 2009. Section 1003 of the act, “Assessment of NASA Laboratory Capabilities,” directs NASA to arrange for an independent review of NASA laboratory facilities as follows:

  • In general. NASA’s laboratories are a critical component of its research capabilities, and the Administrator must ensure that those laboratories remain productive.

  • Review. The Administrator must arrange for an independent external review of NASA’s laboratories, including laboratory equipment, facilities, and support services to determine whether they are equipped and maintained to support NASA’s research activities. The assessment must also include an assessment of the quality of NASA’s in-house laboratory equipment and facilities relative to comparable laboratories elsewhere. The results of the review shall be provided to the Committee on Science and Technology of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate not less than 18 months after this act has been enacted.

NASA requested that the NRC’s Laboratory Assessments Board, in collaboration with the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, carry out and document the subject assessment. NASA operates a large number of test and qualification facilities and scientific and engineering research laboratories of varying sizes and purposes at its 10 field centers. These range from instrument and microelectronics laboratories to large wind tunnels. NASA asked that the assessment be conducted within the following framework (the complete statement of task is included in Appendix A):

  • The study should focus on appraising equipment, facilities, and support services for fundamental science and engineering research, as well as on the adequacy of the resulting capabilities to support NASA goals.

  • Spacecraft qualification equipment and facilities, as contrasted with equipment and facilities used for science and engineering research, are excluded.

  • The charge provides that NASA equipment and facilities be “compared to comparable laboratories elsewhere.” However, study activity will not include benchmarking against other agency, university, or industry facilities; instead, comparisons with non-NASA analogues should be based on the expertise and experience of appointed committee members.

  • To constrain the scope of the activity, NASA and the NRC will agree at task initiation on a subset of the field centers and laboratories within those centers to be reviewed.

  • It is expected that the assessment committee, or components of it, will visit the facilities and equipment selected for appraisal.

  • The review should be completed and the findings documented and delivered by April 28, 2010.

This report contains the methodology that the NRC committee used to conduct the assessment, findings on the support of fundamental research at NASA (funding, facilities, and equipment), details of visits to NASA centers conducting aeronautics and space and Earth science research, and the findings and recommendations from the assessment.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2010. Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12903.
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Over the past 5 years or more, there has been a steady and significant decrease in NASA's laboratory capabilities, including equipment, maintenance, and facility upgrades. This adversely affects the support of NASA's scientists, who rely on these capabilities, as well as NASA's ability to make the basic scientific and technical contributions that others depend on for programs of national importance. The fundamental research community at NASA has been severely impacted by the budget reductions that are responsible for this decrease in laboratory capabilities, and as a result NASA's ability to support even NASA's future goals is in serious jeopardy.

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