NRC Decadal Study Probably "Last and Best Hope" for Microgravity Community

NRC Decadal Study Probably "Last and Best Hope" for Microgravity Community

Betsy Cantwell, co-chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, called that study probably the “last and best hope” for a science and engineering community that has been battered by deep funding cuts and management shifts over the past several years.

Dr. Cantwell made the comment Wednesday after summarizing a host of past studies that made recommendations about biological and physical research that enables and is enabled by human exploration of space. She was opening a joint meeting of six of the seven panels working under the aegis of the Decadal Survey’s steering committee that met in open session in Washington, D.C. yesterday and today. The Powerpoint presentations are available here.

This Decadal Survey is mandated to prioritize both fundamental and applied biological and physical research in microgravity (e.g., aboard the International Space Station) and partial gravity (e.g., on the Moon or Mars). NRC Decadal Surveys are well established community-based priority setting exercises for most space science disciplines, but this is the first in the field of biological and physical sciences. Congress directed NASA to request the NRC to conduct the study in the joint explanatory statement accompanying the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act (P.L. 101-161). Decadal Surveys take their name from the fact that they prioritize research for the next 10 years (a decade) and are repeated about every 10 years. Two other Decadal Surveys in space science disciplines also are underway.

The biological and physical sciences in space community (often called the “microgravity” community) has had its hopes raised and dashed over the past decade as expected funding was reallocated to complete construction of the International Space Station (ISS), restored, and then reallocated again to fund the Ares/Orion system. With ISS assembly close to completion, focus now is turning to what fundamental and applied research can be conducted aboard that “National Laboratory.” In addition, research will be needed to ensure the safety and health of humans traveling beyond low Earth orbit to whatever destination is chosen following the impending report of the Augustine committee. The results of this Decadal Survey, expected in October 2010, will prioritize that research.

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