In this chapter, the committee provides a series of recommendations based on its assessment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) implementation of programs in space life and physical sciences pertaining to the 2011 decadal survey. In keeping with the statement of task, the committee presents this chapter to address recommendations for implementing the recommended portfolio during the remaining years of the decadal survey and in preparation for the next decadal survey, while recognizing resource and program constraints. The committee believes that these recommendations will be useful not only to NASA, but to the broader explorations community that now includes other agencies as well as commercial and international partners. These recommendations may also guide future advisory committees that will engage in the next decadal survey. However, in large part based on this assessment, the committee fully understands that the remaining years of the present decadal survey will continue to be years of rapid evolution as NASA better defines its exploration goals and the ecosystem of interests in low Earth orbit (LEO) matures—making evaluation of these recommendations a very important activity.
As in any effort as complex and important as space exploration, especially in the current context of rapid evolution, there is ample opportunity for continued assessment and resultant improvement. That said, the committee bases these recommendations fundamentally upon the positive responses by NASA to the decadal survey. In fact, Findings 1 and 2 in Chapter 2 specifically recognize the positive changes enacted by NASA. The committee believes, based on the remaining findings of the assessment presented in Chapters 2 through 5, that addressing these recommendations will provide the best possible exploration research within the existing strategic, programmatic, and funding constraints.
The recommendations are organized in three phases: (1) recommendations to address the current status and challenges, (2) recommendations to complete the science effort toward the 2011 decadal survey, and (3) recommendations addressing the pathways to exploration and the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2024. Each recommendation is meant to stand on its own, be addressed individually, and just as importantly be addressed as part of the integrated set of recommendations.
Specific recommendations are provided to address the findings documented previously in this report, as well as other considerations needed for the portfolio implementation.
Programmatic challenges arise within the Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) largely due to budgetary restrictions. Besides the obvious need for greater research funding overall, toward something similar to the 2004 levels (Chapter 2), the decadal survey offered programmatic recommendations that bear attention in the current assessment.
The major operational constraints to progress in space life and physical sciences inevitably focused on the ISS. The committee recognizes that the decadal survey calls out multiple platforms capable of delivering science goals of the portfolio. However the funding lines for SLPSRA and the intense focus on maximizing use of the ISS drive much of the research emphasis toward the ISS. This drive creates a series of limitations that beg solutions. Given the current funding, legislative and organizational constraints, and increased research pressures from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and other government agencies, careful attention is needed to maximize the opportunity exploration related potential research results.
Recommendation 5-1: NASA should recognize the need for regular requests for research proposals, in order to keep an active external research community available to do exploration-related space life and physical sciences research.
Regular requests for proposals foster a vibrant research enterprise that can respond to NASA needs. Regular requests are the only way that university science can be expected to grow the next generation of scientists. Low and inconsistent funding leads researchers to pursue avenues of research outside of space exploration.
Recommendation 5-2: NASA should continue and increase its efforts to maximize International Space Station (ISS) resource synergy across the ISS National Laboratory, international partners, and the Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications, particularly with regards to crew time availability and research priority on the ISS. Continued efforts to increase cargo and crew transport to and from the ISS should be expedited as much as possible.
The limitations driven by the available crew time, upmass, and downmass can be mitigated with synergistic approaches to the detailed research implementation. Significant progress and effort has been made by SLPSRA, CASIS, and other government agencies recognizing these needs and the limited resources. The Committee encourages this continued effort.
Continued efforts to expand and improve research reporting and management of open databases for experiment data is essential for program planning in the remaining years of the ISS and beyond.
Recommendation 5-3: NASA should consider decadal survey priority tracking integration within Agency elements and utilize existing, commercially available, well-known research reporting and open-science database tools that are in use across the academic research spectrum for accurate, timely, and sustainable information. NASA should also make a determined effort to build on the significant improvements in the International Space Station program for communicating the value of the investigations.
As assessed in Chapter 2, NASA recognizes the value in tracking research projects as they apply to decadal survey recommendations. However, current reporting within the agency varies among the divisions and makes it
difficult to provide high-resolution mapping of projects and results as they relate to decadal survey goals. This creates challenges as NASA develops programs to procure science and works to build advocacy for the research needed.
Recommendation 5-4: Relationships with the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and other agencies should be strengthened to better address the decadal survey and midterm review identified research priorities, especially exploration priorities. NASA should consider negotiation with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space regarding International Space Station research allocations to better address NASA’s exploration priorities.
The unique international construct of the ISS, together with the rise of the ISS National Laboratory, creates certain opportunities for stakeholders in parallel with its operational constraints. In particular, the ISS National Laboratory and its CASIS management, as discussed in Chapter 2, create an opportunity for other governmental agencies and private industry to experience the value of microgravity research, and that research inevitably feeds progress toward exploration. Research synergies with these other entities, as well as the established ISS international partners will positively affect exploration research outcomes.
A structured approach is needed to identify areas of potential partnerships, potential synergistic approaches and communication of the results. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-267) enables NASA to negotiate with CASIS if NASA needs greater than 50 percent for exploration research. The committee recognizes that expectations of substantial funding support from other agencies are unrealistic given the highly constrained current and future science funding environment. Efforts to maintain and grow international partnerships with the European Space Agency, Japan, Russia, and other countries will further enhance research opportunities and capabilities.
Again referring to the dynamic evolution of space utilization that is presently occurring, and recognizing the need to maximize research returns before the transitions of ISS potentially beginning in 2024, the committee has the following recommendations to maximize the progress prior to the next decadal survey. These recommendations are aimed primarily at improved coordination and use of available research platforms, while assuring that exploration priorities still consider the fundamental sciences. In particular, the committee recognizes the strong need to properly communicate and advocate within the federal budget process for microgravity research. The committee believes that these recommendations, if adequately addressed, will greatly aid the budget advocacy process and bring in more stakeholders to benefit from the research. The use of the various research platforms will help address the research needs as expeditiously as possible, and provide impetus for additional players or stakeholders in the execution and use of the research results.
Recommendation 5-5: NASA should establish and document traceability of the research priorities to its Technology Roadmaps, Design Reference Missions, and exploration strategy.
This increased traceability would lead to clear selection criteria for research investigations in support of exploration. These criteria, selection decisions, and outcomes would then have clear, direct linkage to the exploration and research needs, and inform key decision points in the overall strategic approach. Based on the negative impacts of frequent but irregular changes in exploration strategy, NASA’s periodic refining of the Design Reference Missions concept based on a regular review process would enhance this traceability.
Recommendation 5-6: NASA should further balance communication and reporting efforts across the organization.
The disparate budget reporting, investigation and research reporting, and the unclear reporting authority of the Human Research Program relative to SLPSRA highlight the need for improved organizational integration of communication and reporting activities. Improving the organizational integration will enhance NASA’s ability to advocate and justify the investments in microgravity research.
Recommendation 5-7: NASA should direct an increasingly higher priority toward the conduct of science within existing International Space Station (ISS) hardware and research capabilities. Utilization of existing, including privately developed, ISS facilities should be maximized in recognition of the current funding limits, the ISS transition timeline, and the need for high-priority microgravity research.
Recommendation 5-8: In order to maximize the implementation of decadal survey priorities within its constrained resources, NASA should continue to be mindful of the full range of platforms (including drop towers, aircraft, balloons, suborbital vehicles, and free-flyers) and terrestrial analogs and ground-based laboratories available for decadal survey research.
Human space exploration currently depends on the ISS for research and for developing long-term space exploration experience. Within the human exploration endeavor, there are two overarching issues affecting the overall research prioritization and funding. The first issue is NASA’s exploration strategy has experienced significant changes since the 2004-2005 timeframe. This includes changes from Constellation to SLS/Orion, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, the Journey to Mars, and the current Deep Space Gateway. These variations create difficulty in mapping science to specific mission needs, yet the findings and the science in Chapters 3 and 4 suggest that any of these missions and mechanisms require significant space life and physical science research for long-term survival of humans in space. However, the finer prioritization required to develop specific science in support of these potential missions respond better in the presence of a clearer exploration roadmap.
The second major open issue is the strategy for the ISS and the U.S. National Laboratory in the post-2024 timeframe. The International partners have all committed to funding their ISS partnerships through 2024, however, there is currently no strategy for ISS in the post-2024 timeframe. It is imperative that NASA develop this strategy for the ISS or other orbital platforms for research as soon as possible in order to provide a basis for planning and prioritization. The strategy must be both realistic and executable.
The following recommendations address the need for an exploration strategy and concomitant need for an LEO post-2024 strategy. These recommendations should be addressed in an integrated fashion.
Recommendation 5-9: In light of the resource constraints, NASA should raise the priority of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division research within the International Space Station (ISS) to address the risks and unknowns of human space exploration, particularly given the value of microgravity research for exploration and the urgency resulting from the potential transition of the ISS. These priorities should be directly traceable to the space exploration strategy, linked research priorities, and related technologies.
Recommendation 5-10: It is essential that NASA as quickly as possible develop an International Space Station post-2024 strategy. This development factors strongly in the overall exploration strategy, space life and physical sciences research priorities, and resource allocation in terms of crew time, cargo delivery, and funding. This post-2024 strategy should address clear cost allocation among the various research activities and partners.
While NASA has stated they plan to address this issue by the end of 2017, it is essential that this be completed as soon as possible as it drives overall strategic direction, key programmatic decisions, key decision criteria, and funding requests and allocation. In the context of this strategy, realistic expectations for transition to commercial operations will need to be considered.
Recommendation 5-11: NASA should aggressively lead in the 46 research priorities for deep space exploration identified in Table 4.1 of this midterm report to provide as much “pull” as possible for exploration enhancement using space life and physical sciences. NASA should, for example, lead in the development of microgravity-adapted biological and physical systems, making maximum use of all available platforms, including the International Space Station, specifically for the science behind the design and implementation of microgravity-optimized operation.
The recommendations presented here were developed in direct response to the statement of task, taking each specific task element as a concept for gathering data to inform an assessment. Each of those element assessments interrelates with other element assessments to inform the recommendations. These recommendations are offered to NASA to meet the exploration needs and to maximize the overall research benefit. The committee emphasizes the need to address these recommendations in an integrated manner. The interrelationships are extremely important and must be addressed.
In the larger, more overarching appreciation for how science progresses, NASA has done a credible job of including fundamental research in the funding portfolio. Given the budget and research constraints, it would be easy to focus only on those investigations viewed as directly “enabling” human exploration. Fundamental physics and research that is labeled “enabled by” needs to be carefully considered and included where appropriate, as evidenced by fundamental physics investigations such as the Cold Atom Lab (CAL) and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). These experiments are fully dependent on microgravity and the space environment, and can lead to game changing potential for science and as yet unappreciated future applications. Also, the “enabled by” research has been carefully considered, as this research can become the bedrock for healthier, more efficient, and less costly exploration approaches in the future.
The committee recognizes an underlying structural conundrum, one that seemingly places NASA exploration goals against the basic science of the space and life sciences portfolio. On one hand, the committee recognizes the need for NASA to focus on exploration, and the statement of task specifically limits the assessment to those priorities that enable deep space exploration. On the other hand, the committee also recognizes the large expense that NASA has put into the fundamental sciences such as CAL, decidedly nonexploration parts of the portfolio. The conundrum arises when balancing the costs of such basic research against the exploration goals in the current NASA emphasis. Yet with a true NASA focus on deep space exploration NASA could prioritize only projects that enable that deep space exploration, at the expense of pure basic research.
In summary, NASA, along with its partners, has done a commendable job of addressing the decadal survey priorities within the imposed constraints. It will be important for NASA to continue to build the key partnerships, continue to evolve and refine the exploration strategy, and maintain the focus on the “enabling” research with
careful consideration and implementation of fundamental physics and “enabled by” research needed for long-term exploration.
The committee applauds NASA’s efforts to use space and the ISS for both science research aligned with science for exploration needs and science conducted for the sake of fundamental science research. However, the committee believes that a judicious approach is needed when shifting NASA research more toward those types of experiments necessary for deep space exploration, so as to reap the benefits of important basic experiments already started, that may in the long term have game-changing effects on space science. Fundamental science research answers key questions for hardware designers and developers and provides the knowledge that can identify disruptive and innovative technologies that can dramatically increase exploration capabilities or reduce costs.
Recommendation 5-12: The committee recommends that a cautious approach be used when shifting the NASA research portfolio more toward those types of experiments necessary for deep space exploration, so as to maintain the benefits of important basic experiments, especially those uniquely enabled by International Space Station microgravity and already in progress, which may in the long term have the potential for major impacts in fundamental physical science.