National Academies

National Academies

What are the National Academies?

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was created by a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  In 1916, the Academy established the National Research Council (NRC) as its operating arm to conduct studies upon request primarily for (and funded by) the federal government.  In 1964, the NAS established the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and, in 1970, the Institute of Medicine (IOM).  From 1916-2015, reports issued by the NAS and NAE were branded as NRC reports, since it is the part of the Academies responsible for them.  However, on July 1, 2015, a rebranding took place.  The IOM was renamed the National Academy of Medicine, the institution as a whole is now “The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” and reports carry that nomenclature rather than NRC.   The NRC still exists, but the name is used only internally.   Colloquially, they are referred as “The National Academies” or NASEM.

The National Academies are non-profit organizations that are not part of the U.S. Government. However, because the original institution, the NAS, was created by law, some operations are subject to certain conditions. For example, they cannot compete for federal contracts (so all contracts must be sole-sourced) and studies are subject to Section 15 of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

Reports are written by committees of expert volunteers from academia, industry, the government, and other organizations. Most reports are managed by one of dozens of “Boards” into which the organization is administratively divided. Most reports about the space program are issued by the Space Studies Board (SSB) or the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB).  Those two Boards, while separate, work especially closely together and share many staff, including the Board Director (currently Michael Moloney).  In February 2016, a joint web portal was established linking to the activities of both Boards: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/deps/spaceandaeronautics/index.htm.

Other Boards also may be involved in space-related studies, including the Board on Physics and Astronomy, the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, the Ocean Studies Board, and the Air Force Studies Board.

A “Board” is composed of the members of the Board (which provides strategic direction for a Board’s activities), a varying number of ad hoc study committees that are created specifically to write a report on a specific topic and terminate once the study is complete, and the staff. In some cases, such as the SSB, there also may be standing committees on a particular topic or discipline. SSB has five standing committees (two joint with other Boards), while ASEB has one (joint with SSB), plus a “Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable” (STIGUR).  The current SSB standing committees are:

Decadal Surveys

What is a Decadal Survey?

One of the signature products of the SSB (and other Boards) are “Decadal Surveys.” The term Decadal Survey is derived from the fact that these studies look forward to the next 10 years (a decade) of research in a particular discipline and are performed about every 10 years. They use a community-based consensus-building process for determining priorities for research. The first Decadal Survey was for ground-based astronomy and astrophysics in 1964. Today, the astronomy and astrophysics Decadal Survey sets priorities for both ground-based and space-based research in that field. The Board on Physics and Astronomy (BPA) and the SSB jointly conduct that survey. More recently, the SSB has produced Decadal Surveys in planetary science, solar and space physics, earth science and applications from space, and biological and physical sciences in space.

Decadal Surveys are highly valued by NASA, other agencies and Congress because they represent a consensus of the researchers in a particular discipline (the “community”) as to what are the most important areas of research and the order in which specific missions should be built and, for NASA, launched. The priorities identified in a Decadal Survey are usually strictly followed, budgets permitting.  In the 2008 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 110-422), Congress directed NASA to request such studies on a periodic basis and to require that they include independent cost estimates of recommended missions and “trip-wires” or decision rules – conditions under which the priority given to a mission might be reexamined.  As noted below, the 2005 NASA Authorization Act requires NASA to request “performance assessments” of how each Decadal Survey is being implemented half-way through that particular decade.

Current Versions of Decadal Surveys

While not a space-related study, ASEB performed a Decadal Survey for civil aeronautics research that is available here.  BPA has undertaken Decadal Surveys for other disciplines under its purview that are available on its website.

“Performance Assessments” for the Decadal Surveys

In Sec. 301 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (P.L.109-155), Congress directed NASA to obtain external “performance assessments” for each of the NASA science divisions at 5-year intervals. In practice, these have become NRC reviews of progress towards achieving the recommendations of the respective Decadal Survey. Informally they are called “mid-term reviews” since they are undertaken approximately mid-way through the decade that was the subject of the associated Decadal Survey.

Recent Reports from the Space Studies Board

SSB reports can be obtained for free as long as supplies last by contacting the Board at or by downloading a free PDF version from the National Academies Press website.

Recent Space-Related Reports from the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB)

ASEB reports can be obtained for free while supplies last by contacting the Board at aseb@nas.edu or by downloading a free PDF version from the National Academies Press website (follow link below).

Other Classic NRC Reports

In addition to the Decadal Surveys, other reports have become classics that are widely cited. Some that appear to be of most interest to the space community that are not listed above are shown here.

Beyond Fortress America: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World (2009, Policy and Global Affairs)

NASA’s Beyond Einstein Program: An Architecture for Implementation (2007, SSB and BPA)

Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2007, Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy)

The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon: Final Report (2007, SSB)

The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems (2007, SSB)  [the “weird life” report]

Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration (2007, SSB and ASEB)

An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs (2006, SSB)

Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope: Final Report (2004, SSB and ASEB)

A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine into the Next Century (1998, SSB)

U.S.-European Collaboration in Space Science (1998, SSB)

The Human Exploration of Space (1997, SSB)

Toward a New Era in Space:  Realigning Policies to New Priorities (the Stever report)  (1988, SSB)