The NASA Programmatic Approach and Strategy Addressing the 2011 Space Life and Physical Sciences Decadal Survey
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) approach to addressing the 2011 decadal survey1 has been multifaceted and, as described in later sections, has yielded significant research progress, given tight funding and resource constraints. Beginning with the establishment in 2011 of the NASA Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), NASA has engendered a rich and varied ecosystem that engages in various aspects of microgravity science. That ecosystem now includes the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), as well as interfaces with other government agencies and the commercial spaceflight sectors. This broad range of players, each with its goals and aspirations, constitutes a team that requires complex coordination among offices within NASA and currently is focused on the International Space Station (ISS) Program.
Since the release of the 2011 decadal survey, NASA’s overall exploration strategy has undergone significant evolution. Following the cancellation of the Constellation Program, NASA embarked on developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion as the fundamental capabilities needed for exploration. Orion and SLS were originally targeted for initial test flights leading to the Asteroid Redirect Mission as part of NASA’s focus on the “Journey to Mars.” The 2014 National Research Council report Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration2 proposed various rationales and approaches for exploration for NASA to consider. Following a change in the administration in early 2017, the planning for the Asteroid Redirect Mission has given way to NASA’s Deep Space Gateway strategy, which NASA announced to the NASA Advisory Council in public session on March 30, 2017. This strategy would have humans orbiting Mars in the mid-2030s. Missions to build a Deep Space Gateway station in cislunar space in the mid- and late 2020s, while NASA’s commitments to the ISS potentially transition in a post-2024 timeframe, would be the next major step. These changes to NASA’s exploration path ultimately influence the overall phasing and approach to the needed scientific research and development, albeit with many of the same fundamental questions needing answers. In addition, future planning for space life and physical sciences research is dependent on the strategy and
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.
2 National Research Council, 2014, Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
planning for the ISS beyond the currently funded 2024 timeframe. NASA appears to be working toward improved alignment between its exploration strategy and research priorities.
Following the 2011 decadal survey release, there have been significant changes affecting the fields of spaceflight and microgravity research. These changes include the methods of transporting research experiments to space and the ISS and the platforms available for research. These changes created both opportunities and challenges to the conduct of science in the field and especially to NASA programs in support of that science. The 2011 decadal survey specifically recognized a programmatic conclusion that, even in this era of change, the future of space exploration very much depends on life and physical sciences research being “central to NASA’s exploration mission” and “embraced throughout the agency.”3 Moreover, the decadal survey stated that space life and physical sciences needed strong leadership and positioning within the overall NASA organizational structure to best enable NASA to engage science in prioritizations.
In a major programmatic response, NASA formed the SLPSRA Division in 2011, with NASA’s Office of the Chief Scientist playing a leading role in its organization. This was a very important step in addressing the primary research needs and priorities described in the 2011 decadal survey. The formation of SLPSRA also directly addressed a primary programmatic recommendation of the decadal survey. SLPSRA includes the Human Research Program (HRP), the Space Biology Program, and the Physical Sciences Program. SLPSRA funding derives from ISS program elements. Therefore, within SLPSRA, the space life and physical sciences portfolio that it oversees is directly associated with the human exploration program within NASA. This association of the space life and physical sciences programs and the Human Research Program within SLPSRA nicely positions SLPSRA to conduct the necessary integration of research programs. SLPSRA has pursued such integration since its inception through strong leadership and highly dedicated science management efforts within the division, as well as strong coordination with the science leadership of the ISS.
The placement of SLPSRA within HEOMD, an operations directorate within NASA, presents the enormous opportunity for SLPSRA to exert influence on integration and mission planning to best deploy science in existing missions and within the developing new exploration mission options. The association of SLPSRA funding within the ISS budget line of HEOMD assures that SLPSRA has a voice “at the table”4 in mission planning with the ISS, the major platform for space life and physical sciences research. This opportunity, however, co-exists with two important challenges. The first challenge is the advocacy of science within an operations directorate and the potential culture issues that can distinguish science and operations. This challenge is being addressed by SLPSRA via its efforts to integrate the science research results into the overall exploration planning within HEOMD. The second challenge is that the SLPSRA budget flows from the ISS Program budget, and the ISS is a platform with a potentially limited lifetime. SLPSRA long-term microgravity research is therefore dependent on the post-2024 ISS strategy.
In 2014, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established the Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space (CBPSS) at the request of SLPSRA. The CBPSS is overseen jointly by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. The overarching purpose of the committee is to support scientific progress in space research in the biological, medical, and physical sciences and assist the federal government, primarily NASA, in integrating and planning programs in these fields. As part of this work, the committee provides an independent forum for identifying and discussing issues in space life and physical sciences among stakeholders. It is also charged with monitoring progress in the implementation of the decadal survey recommendations. Thus, the ongoing and regular interactions between NASA and CBPSS, coupled with SLPSRA’s extensive community engagement activities, signal a strong commitment to the science of the decadal survey.
3 National Research Council, 2011, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration, p. 3.
Finding 2-1: NASA addressed the overall strategy of the report Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era in an appropriate and responsive programmatic manner through the formation of SLPSRA. NASA has enhanced community science input related to the decadal survey by developing a strong interaction with the Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space.
The research portfolio called out in the decadal survey now is impacted by several organizations and entities beyond SLPSRA. One major entity is the U.S. ISS National Laboratory, designated as such by the U.S. Congress in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 109-155). CASIS was chosen in 2011 by NASA to be the manager of the laboratory. The presence of the ISS National Laboratory and its integration into the operations and management of the ISS has had a significant effect on ISS science inputs, outputs, and operations. A more complete description of the laboratory is presented in Section 2.3, along with additional discussion about the challenges and opportunities of this expanding and diversifying landscape of entities involved in science in low Earth orbit (LEO). CASIS, international partners, other NASA organizations (such as the Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate) and other government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation, all have some interest in microgravity research.
The 6 years since the 2011 decadal survey has seen the development of commercial orbital and suborbital launch providers and an increasing economic development interest in microgravity research. These development interests, together with the interests of other agencies and international entities, all present NASA with a challenging set of interrelated interests that all have the potential to contribute to, and draw upon, microgravity research resources.
A resultant major change has been the capability of private enterprise to transport experiments to the ISS and for the private sector to present other spaceflight-related research capabilities. This growth has resulted in NASA developing new relationships and joint efforts with companies such as SpaceX and Orbital/ATK under cargo resupply contracts replacing capabilities previously provided by the space shuttle and international partners. These transportation services have largely maintained the volume of experiments delivered to the ISS.
In addition to these orbital commercial services, there has been significant growth in the suborbital research experiment efforts supplied by private enterprise companies. Appendix F includes the data set supplied by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation listing microgravity experiments since 2011 that have flown on balloons, parabolic, or suborbital missions. This is not considered a complete listing; however, it is representative of the growth in microgravity capability since the 2011 decadal survey. For example, there have been approximately 54 microgravity experiments flown on suborbital vehicles since the decadal survey. These new suborbital research platform opportunities were not available in 2011. These platforms provide an increase in the ability to conduct experiments measured in “minutes” of exposure to microgravity, a capability that joins with the “seconds” available in the parabolic aircraft flights and terrestrial drop towers. Therefore, the range of times in suborbital microgravity now available for science research provides a valuable continuum of research opportunities for the days, weeks, months, and years available on the ISS.
This diversification of the entities contributing to the nation’s microgravity portfolio creates an interesting challenge for measuring the progress of microgravity science. The committee recognizes that NASA, primarily through SLPSRA but also through the ISS Program Office, now coordinates a diverse set of organizations that each have a connected, but individually mandated, stake in the outcomes of microgravity and space life and physical science. A view of the various inputs, outputs, and stakeholders is represented in Figure 2.1. The positive manifestation of this stakeholder diversification includes wide-ranging support across agencies and the commercial marketplace. The challenges that arise include measuring and crediting progress, given the difficulties in managing diverse inputs and outputs. For the committee, the major challenges arise from the various ways in which the contributing entities fund, track, and evaluate research and research outcomes. For example, there are several mechanisms, even
within NASA, for tracking each space life and physical sciences related project. Within each of and among those tracking mechanisms there is yet to develop a codified taxonomy for mapping those projects and their outcomes against the recommendations of the decadal survey.
The committee therefore recognizes and appreciates the difficulties faced by NASA in tracking and measuring progress in this diverse and expanding research landscape. The committee was faced with collecting several data sets, each one useful and limited in its own way in generating a measure of progress, and combining those data sets into a general impression of progress in space life and physical science research. Each of these measures of progress is considered within the context of the entire space life and physical science research portfolio, with a recognition of each measure’s limitations.
2.2 NASA BUDGET AND FUNDING ENVIRONMENT SINCE THE 2011 SPACE LIFE AND PHYSICAL SCIENCES DECADAL SURVEY
One measure of commitment to space life and physical sciences is the overall NASA programmatic budget associated with microgravity science. For a top level assessment, the committee extracted the highest-priority recommendations from Table 13.1 of the decadal survey5 and then updated the table with current funding information in order to develop an impression of budgets and tasks in the relevant aspects of space life and physical sciences within NASA. This budget information was also considered in the context of the availability of science missions to the ISS. At the next level, the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book6 (referred to hereafter as the Task Book) was consulted for information on the numbers of principal investigators (PIs) and tasks, to evaluate trends over the past decade and within that larger budgetary and operations context. As a related measure, the numbers of proposal solicitations and selections within HEOMD were collated and compared annually. Then actual NASA budgets for external science grants were calculated. Finally, the committee attempted to collate the broader inputs and outputs throughout the agency that contributed to specific recommendations in the 2011 decadal survey. The committee recognizes that these measures are but one means of assessing progress in space life and physical sciences and, therefore, in Chapter 3 delves into the science outputs from the programs as another measure.
Following a large decrease in funding in the 2004-2005 timeframe, NASA has gradually increased funding in space life and physical sciences. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, the funding had risen to about $215 million from approximately $170 million in FY2010. This increase demonstrates NASA’s efforts to restore space life and physical science research following ISS assembly completion. However, as shown in Table 2.1, the funding environment has not been restored to its earlier levels of ~$780 million in 1996 and ~$410 million in 2001, all in FY2016 dollars.7 Microgravity research remains underfunded relative to the funding levels of two decades ago. The years since the 2011 decadal survey have also seen an evolution in the number and organization of formal tasks and PIs involved in these areas of science. In FY1996, the budget for NASA’s Office of Life and Microgravity Science and Applications (OLMSA) covered the science areas now in the SLPSRA and included by the decadal survey, in addition to the development of science hardware for the ISS. The large reduction in tasks and PIs followed the establishment of the Vision for Space Exploration in 2005,8 with many of those tasks winding up in 2005-2006. Therefore, the end-state of that programmatic reduction occurred near 2008-2009, with only 363 reported tasks. This was essentially the status of the program when the 2011 decadal survey was developed. The timeframe from 2011 to the present is reflective of ISS assembly completion, and the partial revival of the science environment since the decadal survey and the formation of the SLPSRA within NASA’s HEOMD.
Since the 2011 space life and physical sciences decadal survey and the establishment of SLPSRA, the numbers of formal research tasks and PIs have been on the rise, but remain below the robust portfolio funding and community science numbers seen in the early 2000s.
It is important to note that the budget drop from 1996 to 2001, at a time when the number of science tasks was actually increasing, was in part due to shifting funding lines within NASA. In that timeframe, the budget for ISS facility development was transferred from OLMSA to the ISS program in the Office of Space Flight while the grants to the external community remained in OLMSA.
6 NASA, 2016, The Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book 7.0, NASA Research and Education Support Service, August, https://taskbook.nasaprs.com/publication/welcome.cfm.
7 The fiscal year 2016 constant-year dollars were calculated using information at Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm, accessed October 5, 2017.
8 NASA, 2004, The Vision for Space Exploration, https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/55583main_vision_space_exploration2.pdf.
TABLE 2.1 Budget and Task Summary from 1996 to 2016
|Fiscal Year||Number of Tasks||Budget||Program Contents|
(FY2016$: $780 million)
|Technology and applications for space research and human support in space, environmental health (microbiology, toxicology, barophysiology, and radiobiology), advanced life support, space human factors, advanced space suits, space biology research, plant biology, combustion science, materials science, fluids, fundamental physics, and supporting orbital operations and research|
(FY2016$: $410 million)
|Advanced human support, biomedical countermeasures, gravitational biology and ecology, microgravity research, materials science, environmental health, tissue engineering, telescience, human factors, radiation research|
(FY2016$: $1,170 million)
|Research supporting human exploration and International Space Station (ISS) space life and physical sciences research, including the Human Research Program (HRP) and the small portion of research within the Exploration Technology Demonstration Program that is related to life and physical sciences research|
(FY2016$: $215 million)
|Research includes the Human Research Program, Space Biology and Physical Sciences, including ISS research, ground based research, and research conducted on other flight platforms, funded by the Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA)|
NOTE: Budget numbers comments and tasks for 1996 to 2010 were obtained from Chapter 13 of the 2011 decadal survey (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.). The 2016 task number was obtained from the NASA SLPSRA Task Book (NASA, 2016, The Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book 7.0, NASA Research and Education Support Service, https://taskbook.nasaprs.com/publication/welcome.cfm, August 2017). Also note that task numbers reasonably mirrors numbers of principal investigators. The 2016 budget number was obtained from SLPSRA and is the combined 2017 HRP ($144.8 million) and Biological and Physical Sciences Program ($69.9 million) budget. FY, fiscal year.
The ISS is, by far, the most significant destination for microgravity research at this time. Therefore, the timeline and profile of ISS experimentation impacts progress in the science of the decadal survey.
The ISS has been operational as a science platform since the installation of the Destiny U.S. Laboratory in 2001, with the ISS being essentially assembly-complete since 2010. Microgravity space life and physical science within and associated with the ISS was highly active during the drive to station completion while the Space Shuttle Program was winding down. The Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011 when the shuttle Atlantis, on STS-135, used the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module to deliver supplies and experiments to the ISS. Hence, the bulk of microgravity science from the decadal survey has been taking place in the post-space shuttle era.
Since the retirement of the space shuttle, science to the ISS has been dependent on international and commercial missions to the ISS. The NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program has replaced the space shuttle for providing U.S. domestic access to the ISS. The COTS program consists, to this point, of commercial resupply missions from SpaceX and Orbital ATK. The SpaceX Dragon capsule offers science upmass (cargo to the ISS) and downmass (cargo returned to Earth), while the Orbital ATK Cygnus capsule offers only upmass to the ISS, with limited science as a free-flyer after unberthing.
SpaceX began the implementation flights of the COTS program with the CRS-1 mission. CRS-1 launched on October 8, 2012, and its Dragon capsule was docked to the ISS until October 28, 2012, and when it returned for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. This flight established a SpaceX operational pattern of launch, berthing, and then
remaining on station for approximately 30 days before return. Science experiments have regularly been part of the upmass and downmass. Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) began COTS flights in 2013 with its Cygnus vehicle. The Cygnus operational pattern has been launch, berthing, and staying attached to the ISS for approximately 30 days, followed by detaching and reentry disposal. Science experiments have regularly been part of the upmass within Cygnus.
From 2010 through half of 2017, two to five missions per year (see Figure 2.2) have carried science experiments to and from the ISS. In both Cygnus and Dragon, there has been some upmass for science along with various upmass configurations, including controlled temperature storage. For Dragon only, there has been downmass available, again, also in controlled temperature storage.
The committee also reviewed the NASA Task Book9 data for details on the number of PIs and number of tasks tracked by SLPSRA, as a measure of programmatic commitment to science. These data are freely available on the web10 and the Task Book is easily searched, providing one means of assessing the state and trajectory of science managed by SLPSRA. In keeping with the budget numbers presented in Table 2.1, the number of PIs and tasks is recovering from a nadir in 2008-2009. However, the science project numbers and workforce remain well below the robust era of the early 2000s. The committee assessment shows a decline in the science workforce external to NASA, as measured by number of PIs, of almost 50 percent compared to 2004, with a steady but slow increase since 2009-2011, as shown in Figure 2.3.
The drop from 2004 in PIs and tasks was not spread evenly throughout SLPSRA. HRP suffered a ~30 percent loss of PIs, whereas Space Biology lost ~75 percent and Physical Sciences lost ~85 percent of their PI workforces. By 2016, HRP had recovered to 82 percent, Space Biology to 47 percent, and Physical Sciences to 16 percent of the pre-nadir levels. Looked at in terms of growth since the timeframe of the decadal survey, the 2016 numbers show clearly that there has been a small but continuing growth of the SLPSRA external PI community. HRP PIs have increased from 210 in 2010 to 235 in 2016. Space Biology PI numbers have increased from 43 to 65, and Physical Sciences PIs have increased from 48 to 71 over the same timeframe. This is shown in Figure 2.4.
The number of proposal solicitations11 and the numbers of proposals selected for grant funding is a related top-level measure of NASA commitment to decadal survey science and recommendations. While the numbers of investigators and tasks (Figures 2.3 and 2.4) also measure top-level engagement, the number of solicitations represents NASA requests for that engagement (see Figure 2.5). It is clear that HEOMD has nearly doubled the number of solicitations in 2016, compared to 2010. The number of proposals selected for funding has similarly doubled.
Another measure of commitment to space life and physical sciences is the number and funding levels of grants to engage the external science community in solving space life and physical science related questions. The grant dollars invested by SLPSRA to the external science community to accomplish NASA research has shown an increase above its low of 2007-2009, shown in Figure 2.6. The total SLPSRA funding to acquire external science has risen from a low of ~$21 million in 2007 to ~$50 million in 2016. The HRP grants have risen from $17 million to $25 million, and the combined Space Biology and Physical Sciences grants have risen from $4 million to $20 million, with most of that increase happening in the period from 2011 to 2016. These figures show an increasingly robust use by SLPSRA of the expertise present in the science community formally outside of NASA.
9 NASA, 2016, The Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book 7.0, NASA Research and Education Support Service, https://taskbook.nasaprs.com/publication/welcome.cfm, August 2017.
11 Formally known as NASA Research Announcements.
An important part of the microgravity research landscape in the external community has been the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), which was founded in 1997 on a 15-year contract, later extended for an additional 5 years until 2016. The institute was funded by a congressional budget line as a cooperative agreement within the overall NASA budget. NSBRI was originally designated as a research institute fully autonomous from NASA, focusing primarily on countermeasure research to prevent/mitigate physical and behavioral health problems during space missions. However, over the years, collaboration between the NSBRI and HRP evolved to form a greater partnership role. The NSBRI was a consortium of 12 research institutes, consisting of 7 research teams related to different domains of human health in space. While NASA Research Announcements (NRAs) generally included solicitations for both HRP and NSBRI-funded proposals, different topics for each organization were included in each NRA. Individual peer review panels evaluated both HRP and NSBRI proposals according to the same scientific quality criteria; however, within the pool of proposals that met threshold acceptable scientific scores, NSBRI selected proposals to fund based on their own scientific priorities. Because of the countermeasure focus, these priorities did not necessarily align with the highly recommended priorities of the 2011 decadal survey. Yet the NSBRI clearly has addressed some of these priorities. According to the 2016 Task Book, 73 of the 468 proposals listed were funded through the NSBRI. The decline in number funded by 2016 was due the fact that all NSBRI proposals had a 2016 end date. The Baylor College of Medicine–led Translational Research Institute (TRI) is a consortium funded as the successor to the NSBRI through a NASA cooperative agreement. The stated focus is on space health through facilitating technologies for astronaut health during deep space exploration missions. However, the impact of the establishment of the TRI and its role in microgravity research is not yet known.
The committee recognizes that dollars spent through NASA grants to the external science community (Figures 2.5, 2.6, and 2.7) are but one measure of the budgetary commitments necessary for the conduct of research within the portfolio of the 2011 decadal survey (Table 2.1). Additional recognized expenses include (but are not limited to) personnel costs for civil servant engineers, scientists, and managers required to perform the hardware design or development, assembly, and test, as well as the mission operations, grant management, project manage-
ment, and associated tasks that are required for spaceflight projects. In addition to these necessary budget items within SLPSRA, the committee is cognizant that other elements within NASA contribute to the science of this portfolio. Examples of these contributions would be the large costs for projects such as Cold Atom Lab, mission operations and integration for projects, and databases such as Physical Sciences Informatics and GeneLab, which reside within budget lines outside of SLPSRA and potentially outside the data captured in Table 2.1.
Therefore, the committee broadly considered the science procurement by NASA from the external community, in the era of increased access to the ISS, as a significant measure of commitment to solving issues of space life and physical science. The increase in SLPSRA engagements of external science, as measured by both grant dollars and task/PI numbers, is seen as a very positive trend, and yet the ending of the NSBRI and the start of the TRI makes it difficult to calibrate the total science flow from those sources in this overall funding landscape. Moreover, the committee was made aware of concerns over the lack of regular cadence for NRAs from SLPSRA. At several points in the Community Input Symposium, participants clearly indicated that research programs suffer from an unpredictability and irregularity of proposal requests—a situation that imperils research programs and makes especially difficult the hiring and retention of students and postdoctoral associates within research grants. For example, Space Biology did not offer an NRA from 2014 through much of 2017, leaving many established programs unable to continue space biology projects. Similarly, participants in the Community Input Symposium indicated that SLPSRA has broken up the funding streams on grants into small increments that cover only parts of years, rather than fully funding proposals at one time or at least funding them on a yearly basis. This practice has left many important research programs lurching forward between small funding portions, rather than smoothly progressing through projects.
SLPSRA has gradually increased funding and external research engagements in space biology and physical sciences since the large decrease in funding in the 2007-2008 timeframe. In FY2016, the funding had risen to approximately $215 million from ~$170 million in 2010. This increase demonstrates NASA’s efforts to reemphasize space life sciences, and to a lesser extent physical science research, following ISS assembly completion. However, the funding environment, particularly in physical sciences, has not recovered from its earlier levels of ~$795 million in 1996 and ~$420 million in 2001, all in FY2016 dollars. In addition, there is no regular cadence of calls for research proposals; such a cadence is necessary to maintain the pool of science and researchers ready to support NASA needs over the long term.
Finding 2-2: NASA is supporting the science of the report Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era by modestly increasing the budget and tasks for space life
and physical sciences within overall funding constraints and the operational diversification of microgravity science across research platforms.
The committee attempted to assess how the full range of priorities identified in the 2011 decadal survey was addressed by NASA. The committee also sought to evaluate inputs from CASIS, because CASIS has recognized the value in tracking elements of its science portfolio that address decadal survey recommendations. Both NASA and CASIS provided information through presentations to the committee to aid in the project mapping against specific decadal survey recommendations. The committee understands that NASA also uses the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs to fund microgravity research. The committee has seen that microgravity research is included in the SBIR and STTR topic areas. However, NASA does not track the SBIR or STTR projects against the decadal survey priorities, and therefore neither NSBRI, SBIR, nor STTR research results entered into any attempts to map inputs to specific decadal survey recommendations.
The information from NASA regarding the mapping and tracking of science research to specific decadal survey recommendations took several forms and indicated a recognition of the value of tracking investments against recommendations. Research proposals to SLPSRA now require proposing PIs to identify decadal survey recommendations addressed by the proposed studies. Mapping of projects to decadal survey priorities is often a component of science reports within SLPSRA. Hence, it is clear to the committee that NASA has developed a culture of attending to decadal survey recommendations. That said, comprehensive tracking mechanisms that regularly map ongoing science research onto decadal survey recommendations does not yet exist.
The committee received reports on ISS Program Office efforts to create a database of ISS projects,12 so as to increase research reporting to stakeholders within the government, the research community, the space community at large, and the general public. The addition of 2011 decadal survey research priorities to this database is particularly commendable, as it helps illustrate the magnitude of alignment among NASA’s programmatic operations that address decadal survey recommendations. As of June 2017, the database is currently tracking 326 research projects, 249 (76.4 percent) of which have a PI sponsored within the SLPSRA program. Many of them are linked to specific 2011 decadal survey recommendations. Clearly, microgravity space life and physical sciences are major scientific reasons for the ISS as a research platform. The committee commends the ISS Program Office’s effort to make this information available in an open web-based format and to summarize research findings in plain language for educational purposes. These metrics are impressive; however, they are limited and certainly not complete with respect to tracking the total commitment of NASA to microgravity space life and physical sciences priorities. This limitation in tracking to the decadal survey was recognized and openly discussed by both NASA and the committee.
The committee was further briefed on approximately 2,000 ground-based studies reported through the SLPSRA Task Book database: nearly 200 studies reported by CASIS; a large, yet undetermined, amount of funding for intramural directed intramural research projects; and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ground- and space-based studies sponsored by NASA’s international partners. Through individual queries to representatives of SBIR/STTR, the committee also learned of potentially hundreds of relevant SBIR/STTR research projects. Unfortunately, no mechanism currently exists, particularly in the Task Book, to summarize this vast body of research in a manner that allows mapping to specific priorities.
Thus, the current state of research reporting is impressive and rapidly improving, but remains fragmented and incomplete as far as a tool to assess the distribution of NASA commitments to the space life and physical sciences portfolio. Continued efforts to expand and improve research reporting—specifically, how the projects relate to the decadal survey—is essential for truly advanced program planning and maximizing research utility in the remaining years of the ISS and beyond. In this midterm review, therefore, the committee has primarily utilized program level data to assess NASA’s attention to the decadal survey priorities, and relied on community input and the committee’s own scientific expertise to assess commitments to specific priority areas.
12 NASA, “International Space Station: Experiment List,” https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/experiments_by_name.html, accessed October 5, 2017.
Finding 2-3: NASA has a diverse approach to the reporting of investigation funding, published results, and experiments that is not fully coordinated among programs and offices, making overall tracking to decadal survey priorities difficult.
The ISS Program Office’s efforts to increase research reporting to stakeholders within the government, the research community, and the community at large establishes an excellent model. Unfortunately, no mechanism exists to summarize this vast body of research across the agency. Thus, the current state of research reporting is fragmented and incomplete, but improving. Continued efforts to expand and improve research reporting are essential for program planning.
Finding 2-3 deals specifically with the reporting of science research and the codification of research results for the broader community. Other parts of this report deal with the need for more of the results from space life and physical sciences to map onto the NASA Technology Roadmaps13 to enable exploration.
2.3 EXISTING AND EMERGING CHALLENGES TO AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPLEMENTATION OF THE 2011 DECADAL SURVEY
NASA and its partners have had to address several additional key research resource constraints and opportunities beyond budget. Specific examples include the emergence of the ISS National Laboratory, crew time and cargo delivery as limiting resources, and potential interests of other government agencies. While these constraints are being addressed, the impending imperative to leave LEO for deep space carries with it an added and increasingly recognized pressure to retire NASA involvement in the ISS. The year 2024 is currently estimated as the potential beginning of the transition period for NASA involvement in the ISS.14 With the clock always ticking, recognition of a potential end date for NASA ISS participation looms as a major consideration in microgravity science, particularly in accomplishing the space life and physical science needed to best enable exploration of deep space.
The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (P.L. 115-10) defined two primary objectives for the ISS program going forward: (1) to achieve the long-term goal and objectives under Section 202 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and (2) to pursue a research program that advances knowledge and provides other benefits to the nation. NASA was tasked, in coordination with CASIS, ISS partners, the scientific user community, and the commercial space sector to “develop a plan to transition in a step-wise approach from the current regime that relies heavily on NASA sponsorship to a regime where NASA could be one of many customers of a LEO nongovernmental human space flight enterprise.” The act further states that NASA must provide an ISS transition report to Congress by December 1, 2017, with updates every 2 years until 2023.
Allocations of flight resources of upmass, downmass, and crew time are specified in intergovernmental agreements and U.S. legislation. A top-level representation of this allocation relationship is shown as a pie chart in Figure 2.8. In Figure 2.8, there are two pies, one for Russian research and one for the research on the international portion of the ISS that NASA and the other partners share. The U.S. and international research pie is divided into NASA’s allocation and the allocation for the international partners. NASA’s allocation is then split, due to U.S. legislation, into 50 percent for NASA research and 50 percent for the ISS National Laboratory (further details in the following section). Only a small portion of the NASA research slice is then made available to be allocated for the priorities outlined in the 2011 decadal survey.
This allocation of resources can lead to allocation difficulties, because the various entities having different, and sometimes competing, priorities negotiate for resources. As in the case for Space Biology, shown in Figure 2.9, while both CASIS and NASA may start off with similar fundamental science needs, the NASA needs for flight medicine to enable humans to go to Mars can pull research in a very different direction than the CASIS needs to produce medicinal results relevant back on Earth. Sometimes research can synergistically serve both needs; however, this creative tension between legitimate end goals does not always result in commonality of science needs or resource utilization.
13 NASA, “NASA 2015 Technology Roadmaps,” https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/roadmaps/index.html, accessed October 5, 2017.
14 Presentation by NASA to the committee.
These differences in research priorities pressure the science operations constraints. The ISS is constrained in several resources. Upmass, downmass, and crew time are all constrained to some extent, especially when flight delays occur that affect the resupply and return plan. In addition, operations scenarios, such as the major priority of keeping the ISS flying safely, can also disrupt research performance. There are also many costs to using the ISS, which include transportation costs, costs of schedule delays, costs and complexity of payload or facility development, and costs of implementation.
NASA provided estimates on downmass capability to the committee. In the space shuttle era, the downmass capability at four flights per year was approximately 36,000 kg. As NASA progresses into the use of the private enterprise space transportation providers (e.g., SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada), downmass capability is estimated to be less than one-third of the space shuttle era capability. This is an obvious limitation on the ability of researchers to return samples for terrestrial evaluation, recognizing the mass of the samples and the needed containers.
As a result of these constraints, considerations of areas of science that do not need ISS but still support exploration need careful attention and fostering. While an entire chapter of the 2011 decadal survey (Chapter 11) is dedicated to the capabilities of the ISS, it should be noted that the decadal survey recognizes that ground-based experiments are necessary in some areas, and some microgravity and spaceflight-related studies are well suited
for platforms other than the ISS. A robust consideration of ground studies and all available platforms would help ensure that the entire portfolio moves forward, targeting to ISS those experiments that specifically require its unique capabilities. However, the committee recognizes that space life and physical sciences research will need to be longer term—extending the duration of experiments to multiple years in microgravity—to best support deep space exploration. It is clear that the largest unknowns in exploration have to do with extended durations in microgravity, and these unknowns currently span many of the high-priority recommendations of the decadal survey. The HRP states that the high priorities will not be complete prior to 2024 and that work remains to address and optimize the responses to the risks after 2024.15 Efforts in areas such as gene regulation, cognitive and behavioral conditions, and dietary strategies and food systems, discussed later in this report, clearly show the need for research beyond the 2024 timeframe.
15 Steve Davison, presentation to the committee on February 7, 2017, slide 21.
Finding 2-4: LEO science research needed for exploration will be required beyond 2024. Extended durations in microgravity, measured in years, will continue to be required to best meet deep space exploration research needs.
The ISS National Laboratory has had a large impact on the science prioritized in the decadal survey. The impacts are felt at several levels—from the operations level where ISS crew time and resource priorities are laid out and executed, through to the public policy levels where science achievements are identified and recognized. The committee recognizes the need to work within a clear understanding of the genesis, role, and responsibility of the ISS National Laboratory and CASIS.
The ISS National Laboratory is a conceptual framework created by the U.S. Congress under the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-155), directing NASA to (1) designate the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) of the ISS as a “national laboratory” and (2) develop a plan to “increase the utilization of the ISS by other Federal entities and the private sector . . .” Components of the ISS constructed and operated by NASA and international partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), are called the U.S. Orbital Segment, which currently consists of 11 pressurized components and various external elements.
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-267) directed NASA to enter into a cooperative agreement with a not-for-profit entity—exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26 of the U.S. Code—to manage the ISS National Laboratory. To fulfill its mission as directed by the law, “ISS National Laboratory managed experiments shall be guaranteed access to, and utilization of, not less than 50 percent of the United States research capacity allocation, including power, cold stowage, and requisite crew time onboard the ISS through at least September 30, 2024. Access to the ISS research capacity includes provision for the adequate upmass and downmass capabilities to utilize the ISS research capacity, as available. The Administrator may allocate additional capacity to the ISS National Laboratory should such capacity be in excess of NASA research requirements.”16 Reciprocally, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 enables NASA to negotiate with CASIS if it needs greater than 50 percent for exploration research.
In 2011, NASA selected CASIS17 to be the manager of the ISS National Laboratory. As the nation’s newest and only national laboratory orbiting Earth, the ISS National Laboratory strengthens relationships among NASA, other federal entities, private and public sector institutions, and new-to-space communities in the pursuit of national priorities for the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and education to benefit Earth. The ISS National Laboratory, as described under Section 202 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, serves as a gateway to space, defining new opportunities for commercial research and development, discovery-based science, and the exploration and economic development of LEO. The primary mission of CASIS is to maximize use of this unparalleled platform for innovation to benefit all humankind. As directed by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, CASIS also “considers recommendations of the National Academies decadal survey on biological and physical sciences in space18 in establishing research priorities and in developing proposed enhancements of research capacity and opportunities for the ISS National Laboratory.”
The committee has come to understand the ISS National Laboratory and CASIS to be effective and critical partners in the utilization of the ISS. Further, the committee recognizes that CASIS may consider the decadal survey and may contribute to the science of the survey; however, CASIS is under no direct obligation to meet decadal survey priorities. The priorities of the decadal survey, especially those that are directed toward enabling exploration, largely remain the purview of NASA in general and SLPSRA in particular.
16 42 U.S. Code § 18354.
18 National Research Council, 2011, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration.
Crew time available to science is often cited as the single biggest limitation to the conduct of science, including decadal survey science, on the ISS. This limitation is a result of two separate but related situations; the number of crew on station and the policies related to crew time distribution. Crew time is heavily oversubscribed and is the primary limiting resource for many types of research. For example, human research and rodent research demand is high and is crew-time intensive. Another challenge is the ISS National Laboratory/CASIS demand has grown to fully use the 50 percent allocation granted in the NASA Authorization of 2010 for crew time beginning in late 2015, which has required replanning of NASA-funded research. The distribution of crew time on the ISS is determined through a rather complicated set of prioritizations. According to presentations from NASA to the committee, the prioritization of crew time puts SLPSRA and a large portion of the 2011 decadal survey science at the bottom, making it difficult for SLPSRA science to be conducted in a timely fashion.
With the end of the space shuttle program, the United States and all of the other ISS partners became dependent on the reduced capability of the Russian Soyuz to transport crews to and from the station. The Soyuz is a three-person transport system. Therefore, at any one time the expedition crew size is a maximum of five or six persons when two Soyuz are docked to the ISS. At any one time, generally three persons are on the ISS within the U.S. segment. Although the NASA Commercial Crew Program has been initiated in the United States to provide more crew transportation capability, the ISS is spending its prime years literally understaffed. As a result, the ISS has yet to reach its envisioned science potential.
According to data presented to the committee, the total crew time available for science is approximately 35 hours per week (Figure 2.10). Agreements reached in 2017 that allow NASA contractors to buy additional seats on Soyuz, increasing the number of crew on the U.S. segment to four, greatly increase the crew time available for science. These additional Soyuz seats are expected to be available through 2019, potentially easing the transition from the current Soyuz to the Commercial Crew Program. The Commercial Crew Program was initiated by NASA to stimulate the development of privately operated crew vehicles that can service launches to LEO and the ISS. At present, Commercial Crew launches to the ISS have not yet occurred, and test flights are not planned until 2018. The advent of the Commercial Crew Program is expected to increase crew size to a full ISS capacity, so that nearly an additional person-week of crew time effort for science can be performed, potentially doubling the crew time availability for science to ~60 hours per week.
All too often, space life and physical science waits in a queue for crew time (see next section). Some experiments that are highly important to the decadal survey portfolio need crew time beyond their program allocation and, therefore, never make it to the queue or may be dropped. The importance of crew time as a limitation cannot be overstated—the amount of crew time available for space life and physical science is the single biggest factor in accomplishing the science needed before sending humans into deep space. While NASA and CASIS have been working to identify potential synergies and are working to more effectively coordinate research, CASIS priorities, by definition and law, need not align with NASA priorities nor the 2011 decadal survey recommendations. Nevertheless, the committee recognizes the laudable efforts of CASIS to integrate consideration of the decadal survey into their processes, as well as their work with NASA and the microgravity research community to advance issues of common interest.
Finding 2-5: NASA coordination with ISS National Laboratory continues to develop in a laudable manner. However, as NASA meets the challenges of ISS National Laboratory implementation, its own exploration priorities face increased pressure to garner ISS research resources, such as crew time, cargo delivery, and ISS experiment prioritization. This pressure leaves NASA exploration research priorities at risk of not being met.
The first half of this decade has seen some major shifts in NASA and commercial plans regarding the human occupancy of LEO, and those shifts present both opportunities and challenges to the paradigm that had guided space life and physical science research through 2010. The emergence of commercial interest in space had been
a significant development. Commercial spaceflight now influences research, space tourism, and space manufacturing, all of which can make use of LEO. While space tourism has been considered one potential return on investment for some commercial interests, the potential for unique research and manufacturing opportunities has fueled a wider interest among a broad scope of U.S. industries, ranging from biomedical processes all the way through the physical sciences involved in manufacturing. Much of the role of CASIS has been perceived to be to generate, enable, and grow private interest in the use of the ISS. CASIS has been successful in generating and enabling such interest, yet this interest actually competes for resources with NASA exploration science, because the goals of the research within the ISS National Laboratory need not be aligned with NASA exploration needs or the recommendations of the 2011 decadal survey.
Over the same half decade, NASA is developing an approach aimed at building closer interactions with other government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In part, this set of interactions is viewed as a logical outgrowth of regular access to the ISS National Laboratory. However, an additional goal of developing these interactions stems from a desire by NASA that other government agencies might develop a strong interest in pursuing their own microgravity programs, programs that would be enabled by the ISS National Laboratory as well as the potential growth in commercial LEO platform providers. The committee understands NASA’s desire that some of these other government agencies or private laboratories might be interested in taking over part of the research portfolio of the decadal survey, freeing up NASA resources for deep space exploration.
Presentations made to the committee suggest that NASA is actively engaged in searching for research synergies with other government and nongovernment agencies. There is evidence of clear interaction in the form of signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and even some shared funding opportunities. These newer MOUs continue a practice of interagency cooperation that has existed for years with much of NASA science, and interactions in human health that are particularly relevant to NASA exploration. Examples of such agreements include the following:
- CASIS. In 2015, SLPSRA signed an MOU with CASIS in order to develop a formal framework of collaboration in the use of the ISS, and to co-develop use campaigns. From 2012 to 2016, CASIS has awarded 196 projects with companies, schools, universities, and other government agencies for use of the ISS National Laboratory manifest.
- Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. In 2016, NASA entered into a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement (SAA) with the Sloan Foundation to provide a structure for interactions that support research on the microbial ecosystems of the ISS. This SAA provided a framework that produced a postdoctoral associate program specifically to advance knowledge of the Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE)—particularly, because MoBE can be uniquely advanced by studies in the environment of the ISS and microgravity.
- NSF. In 2010, NASA entered into a memorandum of agreement with NSF on space, Earth, and biological sciences cooperative activities to strategically plan and conduct joint scientific research projects. One outcome related to this agreement was the ISS/PK4 interagency research agreement that cooperatively supports the Dusty Plasma program, which utilizes the ESA Plasma-Krystal 4 facility on the ISS. The Dusty Plasma program resulted in a joint solicitation between HEOMD and NSF.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In 2015, NIST signed an MOU with NASA to provide technical interchange to enhance the impact of NASA’s MaterialsLab microgravity materials science programs. This is an agreement to exchange expertise and data.
- NIH. NASA and NIH have a strong history of science interactions. This history includes the BioMed-ISS solicitation in 2011 that built upon a 2007 MOU signed by NIH and NASA. In 2017, NASA and NIH signed a letter of agreement creating a management intent within both agencies to look for opportunities for interaction, for cross support of science, to encourage space-related health research, and to engage in other joint research activities. The letter of agreement is also an outgrowth of successful NIH research opportunities that have been directed to space-related science.
There exists, therefore, a clear context and opportunity for joint science programs among NASA, CASIS (consistent with 2010 NASA Authorization Act) and other government and nongovernment agencies and institutions. To date, these joint programs have been designed for the mutual and shared interests of the parties, and there has been no shift of microgravity sciences responsibilities from NASA to those other agencies and institutions. At present, those other agencies and institutions look to NASA to provide unique access to the microgravity environment. NSF in particular was very direct in its characterization of the ISS as a facility provided to the community by NASA. In each case of actual joint science, the science made sense from the standpoint of already existing needs of that other agency, rather than that agency taking on science traditionally within the NASA domain. Scientific collaboration that leverages special expertise and addresses existing needs is apparently valued most in these interactions. The collaboration is built around the unique facilities provided by NASA.
One of the major challenges to these interactions is that other agencies, as well the commercial sector, look to NASA to provide launch and operations costs for microgravity research. As NASA attempts to free itself from those launch and operations costs in order to explore deep space, they will have to be absorbed by those entities wishing to conduct research in microgravity. The question of who pays for future launch and operations costs remains the single largest unknown with regard to expanding interest in microgravity research to other government agencies.
Finding 2-6: NASA has initiated relationships and improved efforts to work with other U.S. agencies and nongovernmental institutions to explore the value of microgravity in science. The committee was unable to identify any other federal agency with a programmatic reason to absorb the full costs of developing and conducting experiments on the ISS, even in the face of rising interest in microgravity research.
The resources available for NASA research are inadequate to support the development of the broad array of research recommended by the decadal survey. One approach for improving the allocation of research resources would be to use a modified version of an approach applied by the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). ARL has classified each of the technologies in its 2015-2035 Science and Technology Campaign Plans19 as falling into one of three categories: lead, collaborate, or watch. In the 2016 National Academies report NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities Revisited,20 a recommendation was made to use this system with modified definitions and one additional category: park. To help improve the traceability between this decadal survey research portfolio and the technology portfolio, it is suggested that NASA consider use of these definitions for space life and physical sciences, modified slightly to reflect research rather than technology priorities. These four categories can help NASA determine the level of cooperative development with others and thus reduce their research expenditures.
- Lead. NASA’s needs and timing for a given expected research result are so unique that advancing the research will require NASA investment without substantial shared investments by others. Maintaining in-house expertise and infrastructure for this research while engaging scientists outside the agency is critical to NASA’s unique needs.
- Collaborate. NASA establishes an interdependent partnership with other organizations (government, industry, academia, or international partners) to pursue research using shared investments. This collaboration can take several forms. A common example is NASA and another government agency coordinating research and communicating the results to each other. Another form is a public–private partnership in which NASA provides part of the funding with cost sharing by the industry partner. NASA can also provide its research partners with access to unique infrastructure, research advances, and in-house expertise that significantly influence the direction of the collaboration. Collaborating allows NASA’s in-house technical experts to develop research that they may not have otherwise been afforded the opportunity to do so.
- Watch. NASA maintains high vigilance monitoring emerging research and corresponding efforts within industry, academia, and international markets. Research in this category will most likely be research that is not unique to NASA missions. It is important that NASA stay actively engaged in the national and international scientific dialog to remain poised to react to developments that meet NASA needs. One means of staying actively engaged in the national and international scientific dialog is the attendance at and the participation in scientific conferences by NASA researchers.
- Park. Pursuing research advancement requires better definition of mission or operational requirements before proceeding. NASA would minimize effort for research in this category until better definition is achieved.
NASA’s stated goal of moving exploration beyond LEO to deep space is laudable and exciting, while also placing enormous strain on the microgravity science needed to best support human spaceflight. With the task of examining microgravity science in relation to this shift in emphasis toward exploring deep space, the committee carefully considered both the future plans for ISS and the timelines for the NASA transition to deep space exploration. These overarching policy and program plans were further considered in the context of advances within the science portfolio of the decadal survey in Chapter 4.
NASA has developed excellent collaborations with the ISS partners. For example, joint HRP bed-rest studies with ESA and the German Space Agency (DLR); SLPSRA space biology “Bion” collaborations with Russia, ESA,
20 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities Revisited, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., doi: 10.17226/23582.
CNES,21 and JAXA; combustion physics efforts such as the Saffire project (ESA, Japan, Russia and American scientists); and the Flare project (led by JAXA in Japan, the United States, and ESA).
The future of the ISS is an important consideration for microgravity research. NASA is currently evaluating the potential strategies for the ISS beyond 2024. Currently, all the ISS partners have committed funding for ISS activities through 2024. The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act requires NASA to provide a report to Congress by December 1, 2017, on the ISS strategy post-2024. Based on the science outlined as high priority in this report, the committee does not believe that the necessary research to extend human presence beyond LEO will be complete prior to the 2024 timeframe. Thus, the committee believes that ISS planning beyond 2024 is critical to the overall research necessary for deep space exploration.
NASA has appropriately initiated an internal activity to develop and assess various options for ISS beyond 2024. At the time of this report, no conclusions have been drawn. Conclusions and recommendations are expected in the report to Congress due December 1, 2017. NASA did, however, provide the committee a presentation on the status of this activity. To identify and assess potential ISS strategy options, NASA has developed a list of key considerations. These considerations include a long-term U.S. presence in LEO that is characterized by leadership of international partnerships, and continuing support for commercial space activities in LEO that occur in an ecosystem that (1) fosters ongoing deep space exploration objectives requiring LEO while (2) continuing research and development for fundamental science and technology. The overarching consideration is affordability and sustainability.
NASA is evaluating options to address the considerations above, options that include extension of the current operating model, use of various public–private partnerships, and incorporation of private modules for private enterprise purposes. Transitioning to each of these options is also being assessed keeping in mind the potential of a permanent and/or short duration crew-tended platform. NASA’s options include the reuse of existing, on-orbit ISS hardware. Long-term microgravity research and utilization requirements for NASA, together with the impacts to the National Laboratory, are apparently factored into the NASA analysis. There has been, and continues to be, significant assessment of the various public–private partnerships. For example, in May 2017, the National Academies hosted a “Symposium on America’s Future in Space.” A key element of this symposium was discussion of public–private partnerships, how they have been applied in areas other than space exploration, history of application in the space exploration industry, and possible outcomes. This discussion provided an excellent opportunity to broaden the knowledge base on public–private partnerships for consideration in the area of space exploration. Lessons-learned and ideas from these and similar discussions will be valuable as NASA develops the ISS post-2024 strategy.
ISS hardware can support additional needed research beyond 2024 based on NASA’s extensive analysis. NASA has determined that significant margin and life remains in the ISS hardware through the 2020s and into the 2030s.
In conclusion, the committee applauds NASA’s efforts in developing the ISS strategy beyond 2024. However, it is critical that the strategy be developed in a timely manner to identify the necessary science for the highest priority research needs identified in Chapter 4. In addition, it is not clear to the committee that the necessary business case analyses or use scenarios exist to appropriately assess the commercial development or private enterprise options for LEO, as well as the potential eventual scope of partnerships with other government agencies. In all cases, the full costs associated with access to the ISS, operations of experiments, maintenance of the ISS facilities, and experiment data/sample return must be considered along with the costs of the specific research experiments.
Finding 2-7: As NASA’s ISS strategy evolves for the timeframe beyond the current 2024 commitments, there is a need for clear and objective analyses of all costs necessary to support research. Cost elements (e.g., launch, personnel, operations, facility maintenance) for ISS research projects and CASIS activities are important factors in the assessment of research activities and for determining appropriate partner funding levels.
21 The Centre National d’Études Spatiales is the French government space agency.
NASA has worked diligently to develop the ISS research capabilities since the 2011 decadal survey. Figure 2.11 shows the current and planned increase in Major Internal Research Facilities for the ISS and the EXPRESS Rack Expansion from 2016 through 2018. This is significant growth in capability given the tight fiscal constraints and the challenges of developing on-orbit flight hardware. Presentations to the committee indicate that occupancy space within the ISS will near 95 percent by the end of 2017, with EXPRESS Racks full by mid-2018 (Figure 2.12). Similarly, occupancy of the external ISS racks and facilities is also nearly full. As the research capability on the ISS reaches maximum capacity through 2018, it will be important to focus on complete utilization of those facilities, rather than developing new facilities. Budget data presented to the committee indicate that if fewer new facilities were to be developed by NASA, significant funds would become available for the conduct of experiments in existing facilities on the ISS. As the research capability is increased through 2018, it is important to realize that the available research time from 2018 to 2024 is limited, given the crew time limitations. NASA is proactively working to maximize these resources; however, the costs required for additional research capabilities must be traded off against the funding of high-priority research. Cost for additional research capability typically exceeds the cost of individual research investigations by at least an order of magnitude due to the essential engineering, development, and crew safety precautions. It will therefore be important for NASA to focus remaining funding and crew time through the 2024 timeframe on the high-priority research investigations rather than developing new research facilities and capabilities.
Finding 2-8: While NASA has worked diligently to enhance ISS research capability since the 2011 decadal survey, the potential 2024 transition era of U.S. participation in the ISS may call for a change of strategy with respect to ISS facilities development, including use of privately developed research facilities.
Development of new capabilities is expensive compared with use of existing capabilities, and a greater portion of limited funds could be directed toward science in order to maximize return of data from the ISS in its remaining years.
One mechanism envisioned for enhancing the science value of all NASA and NASA interactive science is the establishment of well-designed and well-populated databases of research in microgravity. The establishment
and use of open databases with machine-readable data is supported by a 2013 Executive Order22 that made this practice the default for government data. This executive order, among other things, mandated open-access publications and spurred initiatives for the archiving of big data. For NASA HEOMD, this order led to the establishment of the Physical Sciences Informatics (PSI) data repository and GeneLab. PSI arose along with the NIST MOU, with the PSI data repository designed to be the major mechanism for making physical sciences data from SLPSRA and the ISS broadly available to the science community. GeneLab and its biological data repository are designed to be the major mechanism for making large omics-related data sets similarly available to the science community.23 Both PSI and GeneLab are viewed as extremely positive outcomes in support of open science within NASA. PSI and GeneLab point toward and accomplish the more rapid dissemination of raw and processed data from spaceflight experiments and are quite successful in that regard. Both of these initiatives have driven science toward more data-rich experiments that have the real potential to provide useful data for years after the data is gathered.
The PSI and GeneLab initiatives are viewed as both enlightened and already successful. The committee clearly recognizes that there has been a recognizable shift toward high-data-density experiments that provide data more quickly than in the past to the databases, and those kinds of databases are being used by the community. The SLSPRA request for proposals to use GeneLab data, the Innovation Awards Research Solicitation, was well received by the external science community, with 6 of 34 proposals receiving funding after scientific merit and technical feasibility reviews.
One question that arises is that of database persistence—Are there provisions, financial and administrative, for maintenance and continuous updating of GeneLab and PSI for the indefinite future? Furthermore, is there a plan to add to the data a guide for users showing who already has analyzed the data, and in what fashion, to avoid duplication of effort? The value of the database to users might be greatly increased by including such follow-ups with the data. The committee was presented with cogent future plans for GeneLab that included continued interaction with the user community. Database persistence might be an issue to consider in such interactions.
Although the concept is not clearly developed and articulated by SLPSRA, reference experiments can be used in support of open databases. In one version of the concept, a reference experiment was described as being an experiment of high data density that does more than address a single narrow hypothesis and is proposed by an interactive and extensive team of scientists to collect data that would be suitable for later analysis by multiple groups of investigators. In such an experiment, the resulting data would have the benefit of multiple PI inputs into design and implementation, with the intent of creating large data sets with wider-ranging applicability and extensive post-flight usage than a single-hypothesis experiment. This sort of implementation concept for reference experiments is seen by the committee as having value, although an important question is who will perform the experimental work after the reference experiment is agreed upon. A full process has yet to be developed. For example, the creation of RNA-sequencing libraries, with appropriate technical and biological repeats, would be valuable, but a process needs to be in place to determine the appropriate experts to perform the sequencing and to ensure the latest and best-validated methods and equipment are used. It would be important also to establish who should perform the initial bioinformatic quality controls (for consistency of technical and biological replicates, deduplication, quality check against genomic data, and so on), although the process by which to do this is yet to be developed. Other versions of the reference experiment concept include the use of science definition teams and contracted sample processing. As NASA still is developing its approach to reference experiments, the committee is not in a position to make firm recommendations, other than to encourage the further development of the concept in coordination with the relevant external communities that possess the needed technical and analytical expertise.
22 White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2013, “Executive Order—Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information,” May 9, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/09/executive-order-making-open-and-machinereadable-new-default-government-.
23 The term omics broadly refers those biology technologies ending in -omics, including genomics, proteomics, or metabolomics.