NASA’s “Severely Underfunded” Biological and Physical Sciences Research Program Needs Tenfold Increase

NASA’s “Severely Underfunded” Biological and Physical Sciences Research Program Needs Tenfold Increase

Grand plans for long-term human exploration of space require extensive research into how humans adapt to the space environment and that means increased funding for biological and physical sciences research at NASA. That is the bottom line of a new Decadal Survey released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine today recommending priorities for the next 10 years of biological and physical research. The “severely underfunded” program needs a tenfold infusion of money if national goals are to be met and U.S. leadership maintained.

Thriving in Space: Ensuring the Future of Biological and Physical Research” is the second Decadal Survey on biological and physical sciences (BPS) in space, but the first since that research discipline moved over to the Science Mission Directorate from NASA’s exploration organization last year.

The National Academies perform Decadal Surveys every 10 years — a decade — for each of NASA’s five science disciplines (astrophysics, BPS, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary) to set priorities using a community-driven consensus process. The reports are highly valued not only by NASA, but Congress to help make tough choices as to what fields of research, projects, and programs to fund.

Committee co-chairs Robert Ferl, University of Florida, and Krystyn Van Vliet, Cornell University, briefed the public this morning at the National Academies’ Keck Center in Washington, D.C.  Their theme was that pursuing the nation’s human exploration goals and maintaining U.S. leadership must start with a significant increase in investment over the rest of this decade. FY2023 funding for BPS is $85 million. The committee wants that to increase tenfold. The report’s interactive website crisply makes the point:

If the United States wants to maintain its leadership role for the next generation of space exploration, funding for BPS research will have to increase tenfold before the end of the decade. This level of funding is necessary to support a robust and resilient program that can meet the nation’s space exploration science needs.

The press release explains a bit more.

Thriving in Space ― Ensuring the Future of Biological and Physical Sciences Research: A Decadal Survey for 2023-2032 finds the BPS program is severely underfunded relative to the scientific questions it is being asked to address and has the least funding of all the divisions within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The lack of sufficient funding slows scientific progress when it should be speeding up to keep pace with the growth in space exploration and development. Additionally, it threatens the nation’s ability to build and sustain talent that can compete and collaborate in space-based scientific research and technology development. The report recommends that the total BPS science budget be increased by a factor of 10 before the end of the decade to maintain the kind of robust and resilient program necessary to meet the nation’s space exploration science needs, and to allow BPS to compete and collaborate internationally.

That funding would go to answering 11 key scientific questions grouped into three themes.

Source: “Thriving in Space” briefing slide, September 12, 2023.

Those questions include “how genetics and life history influence acclimation to the space environment, and what the effects of space are on growth, development, and reproduction over multiple generations.”

The International Space Station is the “premier” platform for this research, but the committee stresses it is only one. Other microgravity facilities are available now and more are coming particularly from the private sector, like commercial suborbital vehicles, Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), and Commercial LEO Destinations (CLDs) to succeed the ISS. The committee encourages NASA to take advantage of commercial microgravity research opportunities in addition to their own.

In fact, Van Vliet said the report’s cover photo showing Peggy Whitson conducting research on the ISS was chosen not only because Whitson is an “amazing female astronaut and researcher,” but because she made the transition from the public sector to the private sector when she joined Axiom Space.

A biochemist, Whitson is a record-holding astronaut who spent two decades in the NASA astronaut corps before joining Axiom, a company that sends private astronauts to the ISS for short stays and is building a commercial space station. Whitson is Director of Human Spaceflight at Axiom and recently commanded the Axiom-2 mission to ISS, her fourth trip there (she was ISS Commander twice and performed 10 spacewalks).

Van Vliet said Whitson exemplifies what’s needed for the future.  “It’s this dynamism of researchers that are working in different environments with different constraints and different opportunities that we’re seeing more of and we need to see much more.”

Continued interagency and international partnerships are also encouraged.

The committee recommended two dedicated research campaigns as an initial focus if the increased funding materializes: Bioregenerative Life Support Systems (BLISS) and Manufacturing mATeRials and proCEsses for Sustainability in Space (MATRICES).

Source: “Thriving in Space” briefing slide, September 12, 2023.

Ferl said the idea of the research campaigns is to “capture and sort of encapsulate some big goals” that are “scalable within the decade, priceable within the decade, and that include a risk analysis of the environments and the activities that would be required in order to pull off this kind of research campaign.”

In a statement, SMD Associate Administrator Nicky Fox welcomed the report saying it will “inform a compelling new chapter” in BPS. Newly appointed BPS division director Lisa Carnell added that BPS research “enables researchers to pursue innovations and discoveries not possible on Earth.” Both were at the Academies for the report’s release. Carnell called it an exciting time, especially with growing commercial opportunities.

“As we move forward, we can’t neglect the fact that this is a really exciting time in history for NASA, for BPS, SMD, to be participating in this new commercial space economy. And so it’s really exciting being one of many customers in the commercial sector [and to see] how will this fold into addressing these recommendations and as we move forward, the future for BPS and their engagement in low Earth orbit. We also look forward to working continually with our partners and our collaborators both nationally and internationally.” — Lisa Carnell


Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed the quote about this being “a really exciting time in history for NASA…” to Van Vliet. It was NASA BPS Division Director Lisa Carnell who made those remarks. This corrected version also expands on those remarks.

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