NRC Calls for Restoring Health of NASA's Microgravity Research Program

NRC Calls for Restoring Health of NASA's Microgravity Research Program

In an interim report on its Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, the National Research Council (NRC) is calling for the microgravity research program at NASA to be led by someone “of significant gravitas who is in a position of authority within the agency and has the communications skills to ensure the entire agency understands and concurs with the key objective to support and conduct high-fidelity, high-quality, high-value research.”

NASA’s research program for biological and physical sciences in space, usually called the microgravity program, has been buffeted for years by changes in the International Space Station (ISS) program and funding constraints associated with President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration policy. Although the ISS is not the only platform for conducting such research, as the NRC report emphasizes, the justification for building the ISS rests largely on the science that can be conducted there. President Obama’s proposal to continue operating the ISS until at least 2020, rather than discontinuing U.S. participation in the facility in 2015 as envisioned under President Bush, is based in part on using the ISS as a National Laboratory for microgravity research.

The question then is what research needs to be done and how to prioritize it. Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct the first Decadal Survey for this discipline in the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act. The final report is expected in 2011, but the renewed focus on ISS research in the Obama Administration’s FY2011 budget request prompted the NRC to issue this interim report to address near-term issues.

As explained in the report, dramatic funding cuts in the field led many scientists to abandon this type of research, which once had its own program office at NASA Headquarters, most recently called the Office of Biological and Physical Research. That office was abolished and today microgravity research is a component of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate’s (ESMD’s) Advanced Capabilities program.

The interim report identifies near-term research opportunities for the ISS. The final report will go into much more detail and define and prioritize an integrated research portfolio. The study is intended to address not only research in microgravity, but partial gravity such as on the surface of the Moon.

The NRC study committee is co-chaired by Betsy Cantwell of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Wendy Kohrt of the University of Colorado, Denver. (For more information on NRC Decadal Surveys and links to the panels associated with this one, see our NRC page on the left menu at

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