The Committee on a Midterm Assessment of Implementation of the Decadal Survey on Life and Physical Sciences Research at NASA was tasked by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to review NASA’s progress since the 2011 decadal survey, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era,1 to assess the high-priority research identified in the decadal survey in light of future human Mars exploration. The committee was further tasked to make recommendations on science priorities, specifically those priorities that best enable deep space exploration. The statement of task is reprinted in its entirety in Appendix A.
As is typical of midterm assessments, this review examines the progress NASA has made on the findings and recommendations of the 2011 decadal survey. This examination focuses on programmatic progress in Chapter 2 and on scientific progress in Chapter 3.
The statement of task goes beyond a simple assessment of progress and frames a specific set of tasks that are focused on that part of the decadal survey that explicitly deals with enabling space exploration. Those tasks ask for a deeper evaluation and additional ranking of those decadal survey recommendations that are a high priority for enabling exploration. Indeed, the statement of task required further prioritization of those high-priority, enabling recommendations, with an emphasis on deep space exploration and moving beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Further, the statement of task referred to the year 2024 as a timeline marker against which the science of exploration into deep space was to be metered.
The committee, per its charge and as is the standard practice for midterm assessments, respected the findings and recommendations of the 2011 decadal survey. Rather than re-examine the decadal survey, the committee focused on the progress since the decadal survey and used the decadal survey priorities and findings as the basis for the midterm assessment. In addition, the committee also identified and ranked, “from among the highest-priority recommendations” in the decadal survey, targeted research priorities critical to the expansion of human exploration into deep space. These rankings anticipate future science needed for exploration and were based on the committee’s assessments of the multiple data inputs addressing current research in space life and physical sciences. The evaluation and ranking of those recommendations that enable deep space exploration, together with the science that underpins those recommendations, are presented in Chapter 4.
1 National Research Council, 2011, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., https://doi.org/10.17226/13048.
Lastly, the committee was tasked with providing programmatic recommendations for implementation over the remainder of the decadal survey timeframe. Those recommendations appear in Chapter 5. It is expected that this effort will inform the next space life and physical sciences decadal survey, expected in the early 2020s.
As the 2011 decadal survey stated, “This review, or decadal survey, takes place in the context of the many remarkable achievements of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in exploring and studying space during the past 40 years. However, NASA’s continued preeminence in this endeavor cannot be assumed, because other nations have both a keen interest, and the intent to make their own mark, in space.”2 This statement remains true at the midterm review. NASA’s mission to extend human presence beyond LEO is work deserving of a nation that expects to remain the global leader in space exploration.
Much has changed since the 2011 decadal survey. NASA established the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed. The space shuttle system was retired. Private enterprise has initiated cargo delivery service to the ISS. Development efforts are in the works for private enterprise transporting crew to the ISS. Suborbital vehicles have begun operation, providing additional research platforms. The U.S. ISS National Laboratory came to fruition, and its research content is determined by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space. While the decadal survey anticipated some of these developments, the breadth and depth of changes in the spaceflight landscape has been dramatic.
NASA’s strategy for exploration has also evolved since the decadal survey (Figure 1.1). NASA is now focused on Mars as the horizon destination, and since the spring of 2017 has initiated planning for the Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space. This overarching exploration strategy establishes the context for the research priorities and the programmatic implementation. One key element that remains to be understood is the plan and strategy for the ISS beyond 2024 and the current international partnership funding agreements. This unknown affects how the research necessary for human space exploration will be accomplished.
With an evolving U.S. exploration strategy, the advent of private enterprise service providers for cargo and crew to the ISS, and availability of new research platforms, it was important that a midterm review of the 2011 decadal survey be carried out. It is important to note that the exploration strategy will continue to evolve; however, the fundamental scientific understanding for human survival in deep space, and the research needed to enable human space exploration, will continue beyond 2024 and throughout the execution of these exploration plans.
Space life and physical sciences research has been performed within NASA by various organizations. There has been significant change in the funding levels for this research due to other priorities within NASA. In the early 2000s, the funding was dramatically reduced to assure ISS assembly and to initiate the NASA human exploration activities beyond LEO. Since the early 2000s, NASA, given funding constraints, has gradually grown the funding for microgravity research. It is not back to the funding levels of the early 2000s; however, there is improvement.
NASA has also worked to focus research funding on the needs for human exploration, while maintaining some level of basic science research. The ISS provides a unique laboratory environment for basic science research.
This midterm review strictly uses the priorities identified in the 2011 decadal survey as its starting point. The committee also could not reasonably review all of the details of the research and the progress since the 2011 decadal survey in the time available, nor was such an examination called for in its charge. The committee made a concerted effort to review the key progress and issues with NASA, other government agencies, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the ISS Program, and the research community through an open National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine event, a Community Input Symposium in April 2017.
2 Ibid, p. 11.
The statement of task, shown in Appendix A, asks the committee to assess the progress since the 2011 decadal survey, to assess the high-priority research identified in the decadal survey in light of future human Mars exploration, and asks for recommendations on programmatic implementation for the remainder of the decadal survey timeframe, leading up to the next decadal survey.
In addition, four committee meetings were held to obtain briefings from NASA, CASIS, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. In all cases, the presenters were very responsive to the data requests and provided invaluable information and insight. NASA also provided significant support for the committee’s analysis of the resources and funding levels for the research activities. Their support was exemplary.
This report addresses the statement of task in an approach that draws multiple task elements together to provide a cogent understanding of the committee’s assessment and recommendations. The committee recognized that the topics addressed in the report are significantly interrelated. Therefore, the report does not linearly follow the statement of task. Rather the committee has worked diligently to address the concepts of the statement of task and present its assessment, findings, and recommendations in a logical narrative that recognizes the interrelated nature of the subject matter.
The assessment begins in Chapter 2, where the overall programmatic and budgetary commitments of NASA to the guiding concepts presented in the decadal survey are examined. Chapter 2 addresses directly the approach and progress of NASA toward realizing the strategies, goals, and priorities of the decadal survey. Chapter 2 also discusses the plans for the ISS and LEO infrastructure, the opportunities and challenges of a multisponsor environ-
ment, and resource constraints. Chapter 2 therefore presents a comprehensive view of the programmatic approach taken by NASA.
Chapter 3 considers the science developments in the research community that have occurred since the 2011 decadal survey in response to the programmatic commitments made by NASA. Chapter 3 serves as the scientific basis for assessing research progress in the context of that programmatic commitment. Chapter 3 also establishes the foundation from which the future needed science is prioritized.
The future direction of space life and physical sciences is considered in Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 addresses the statement of task request to identify and rank from among the “highest-priority recommendations” a set of targeted research priorities that are critical for NASA to conduct in order to enable human exploration of deep space. Recommendations in Chapter 5 are structured in “themes” to account for the interrelated nature of the findings throughout the report. Findings and recommendations represent the consensus opinion of the committee members.
It should be noted that the number of pages devoted to individual discipline sections is not an indication of the priority of those disciplines. Rather, the length of discipline sections depends largely on the degree to which progress could be easily summarized across several related topics within that discipline, the growth in opportunities provided by new tools (such as omics technologies), and the extent of the enabling research needs that are yet to be addressed. For example, many of the high-priority animal and human biology research topics are being targeted aggressively in ISS experiments, as the critical relevance of this research to biomedical countermeasures is already widely understood at NASA. Conversely, physical sciences research on the ISS has been more limited and has seen less progress in addressing decadal survey recommendations. There is therefore correspondingly more discussion of unmet physical science priorities and their relevance to exploration. For this reason, while the scope and scale of this midterm study did not make it feasible to discuss the interface between microgravity physical phenomena and exploration systems in significant depth, the committee thought that it was important to provide in Chapter 4 details of a few relevant examples.