Science in Space Exploration Vision: NRC Report

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Publication date: 
12 December 2005

"Exploration is a key step in the search for fundamental and systematic understanding of the universe around us. Exploration done properly is a form of science." - Committee on the Scientific Context for Space Exploration, National Research Council

As NASA begins to develop strategic roadmaps for the science to be conducted in the context of its space exploration initiative, a National Research Council (NRC) report offers some initial guidance. It reaffirms the value of past and ongoing decadal survey efforts, recommends a similar priority-setting process be established for crosscutting science and technology to enable human exploration, and encourages a focus on the exploration targets with the greatest potential to advance understanding.

Both Congress and a presidential commission charged with determining how to implement President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration have sought the NRC's perspective on how NASA's science priorities should be viewed in light of the new focus on exploration. In response, the NRC formed the Committee on the Scientific Context for Space Exploration. As a "partial response" to Congress and the Administration, the committee has produced a report, "Science in NASA's Vision for Space Exploration," which makes recommendations on NASA's prioritization of science.

The report recognizes two different types of science in the context of the exploration initiative: that which will be enabled by human exploration, and that which will enable human exploration. "These two categories of science will need to be treated differently" in the prioritization process, it says. "Science that is enabled by human exploration is properly competed directly with ‘decadal-survey' science and evaluated and prioritized according to the same rigorous criteria. Science to enable human exploration must compete on the basis of the criticality of the problem it addresses (not necessarily a science issue) and the likelihood that it will resolve the problem. Put another way, for the former kind of science, greater understanding is an end in itself, and science that seeks to contribute to such understanding must compete in this metric with decadal-survey science. For the latter science, understanding is a means to the end of resolving a particular problem, and the degree of understanding needed depends on the problem."

For science that advances understanding of the universe, the report commends the priority-setting process used to develop the series of decadal surveys and similar NRC documents. The "decadal-survey process is inclusive," it says, and builds "broad consensus" across the relevant science communities. The report acknowledges that past surveys "were conducted without regard to scientific opportunities provided by human exploration," and that some "research discipline communities have begun to consider whether current priorities should be reexamined."

It concludes, though, that "the most recent NRC decadal surveys for the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, solar system exploration, solar and space physics, and the interface between fundamental physics and cosmology remain valid in the context of NASA's new exploration vision because they do identify the critical science questions to be addressed in the next decade of space exploration." It recommends that these documents "be used as the primary scientific starting points to guide the development of NASA's strategic roadmaps that include these areas."

As for the science to enable human exploration, the report cites the need for "crosscutting advice...from cross-disciplinary groups of experts representing diverse scientific fields." It urges that "all enabling evaluated and planned with the same scientific rigor, openness, and thoughtful prioritization that have characterized the decadal surveys.

In general, the report recommends that priorities for science in the context of the exploration initiative should follow several guiding principles, including: recognizing that properly-executed exploration can contribute to scientific understanding; both robotic and human missions should be used "to fulfill scientific roles" in exploration; research should be utilized to address engineering and science challenges to long-duration human missions; and "targets for exploration" should be those with the greatest potential to advance understanding of our origins and our future and should address Earth, the solar system and the broader universe. The report also recommends that NASA seek breakthroughs "across the full spectrum of goals" embodied in its mission statement, and that it apply "successful aspects of the robotic science program" to the human spaceflight program.

"The committee believes that exploration, in the broad sense defined in this report, is the proper goal for NASA," the report says. "The appropriate science in a vibrant space program is, therefore, nothing less than that science that will transform our understanding of the universe around us, and will in time transform us into a space-faring civilization that extends the human presence across the solar system."

The report, "Science in NASA's Vision for Space Exploration," runs approximately 37 pages. It can be ordered online at and the Executive Summary can be read at the same site.

In related news, the space agency has reconstituted its NASA Advisory Council. According to a November 29 NASA press release, the 24-member council comprises "a group of eminent U.S. citizens organized to provide guidance and policy advice" to the NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin. The council was restructured "to meet agency needs as it implements the Vision for Space Exploration,"and incorporates a number of "previously-chartered standing committees," the release says. The council is chaired by former Senator and former Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt, and includes subject matter experts in the areas of exploration, science, aeronautics, human capital, and audit and finance, as well as ex-officio members from the NRC's Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, and the Institute of Medicine. Schmitt identified returning the shuttle to safe flight, completing the space station, developing a new crew exploration vehicle, and "returning humans to the surface of the moon and then on to Mars" as challenges that the council will work with NASA to address.