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NASA’s life and physical science program gets a check-up

Posted on behalf of Adam Mann.

astronauts.jpg Getting humans and other organisms into space is hard. Figuring out what kind of worthwhile science to do with them once they’re there may be even harder. With that challenge in mind, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report on 5 April outlining research priorities for NASA’s biological and physical sciences for the next ten years.

But because of shifting plans for human spaceflight and uncertain funding scenarios from US President Barack Obama and Congress, the Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space does not ask for specific projects or draft a particular research path.

“We had to come up with a set of recommendations that will be adaptable to different budgets and future space exploration goals,” says Wendy Kohrt, a gerontologist at the University of Colorado’s Anchutz Medical campus in Aurora, Colorado, and one of the decadal’s co-chairs.

When committee members first met to begin the report in 2009, NASA was working toward the Bush-era Constellation program, which would have built new rockets and crew vehicles to take astronauts to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. In February 2010, President Obama cancelled the plan in favor of extending the International Space Station’s (ISS) mission and larger investments in private spaceflight. Legislators, on the other hand, have since revived many of the Constellation projects, albeit under different names, in order to ensure that prior NASA’s investments bear useful fruit.

Rather than rank large, medium, and small scale missions—like the NRC’s other decadal surveys—the biological and physical science report merely sketches out research goals enabled by or enabling human spaceflight. In biology, these include dozens of ideas such as developing a program aimed at demonstrating the role of microbial-plan systems for life support, conducting research to enhance team cohesiveness and performance under conditions of isolation and autonomy, and creating countermeasures for reversing bone loss in zero-g environments. For physics research, the report suggests fundamental experiments on the behavior of complex fluids in reduced gravity environments and methods to prevent propellant from being lost to space during storage.

The projects can be tailored toward a variety of NASA’s programmatic goals and the report specifies those that have high value in different scenarios. If, for example, the plan is to send humans to Mars, some of the research recommendations become more important than others, says Kohrt. In contrast, if the decision is made for humans to do six months stints on the International Space Station (ISS), the research might be planned around more fundamental scientific contributions, she says.

Part of the challenge in conducting this research will be establishing a home at the agency for it, says Kohrt. Because of priorities toward building new rockets and crew capsules under the Constellation program, funding for life and physical sciences at NASA has been reduced 90% since 2003 and left such research without a clear programmatic institution. According to the decadal report this situation has left the agency “poorly positioned to take full advantage of the scientific opportunities offered by the now fully equipped and staffed ISS laboratory.”

Some in the research community echo such sentiments, especially regarding animal and human health in space. “We’ve learned a lot less than we would have hoped to learn by now,” says Russell Turner, who studies bone physiology at Oregon State University and was a reviewer for the decadal. While scientists have made great strides toward understanding the detrimental effects of weightlessness on the musculoskeletal system, they are nowhere near being able to maintain full strength over long periods in space, he says.

The life and physical science report helps identify the strengths and weakness of NASA’s current research program and provides good direction, says Turner. Hopefully some of the recommendations will be carried out, he says.

But as each new administration and Congress alters NASA’s priorities, the challenge becomes more difficult. “When we have these types of changes, it’s hard to have continuity,” says Turner.

Image: NASA


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