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Decadal Survey Seeks Tenfold Boost for Spaceborne Research Budget

SEP 21, 2023
NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences portfolio is “severely underfunded,” a National Academies report argues.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
Peggy Whitson Blood Samples ISS 2017.jpg

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson stores blood samples in the International Space Station’s ultra-cold freezer. This image was used as the cover of the 2023 BPS decadal survey.

(NASA)

The National Academies published a decadal survey of priorities for NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) division last week. The nearly 350-page report, titled “Thriving in Space,” argues the division is “severely underfunded” and should receive a tenfold budget increase before the end of the decade in order to advance the agency’s long-term space exploration goals.

The division, which primarily supports research projects hosted on the International Space Station, currently has an annual budget of $85 million. Yet in 1996 NASA spent the equivalent of nearly $700 million on BPS research, after adjusting for inflation. In the early 2000s, however, NASA’s focus shifted to the Constellation lunar exploration program, and cuts to the division were never reversed.

A budget closer to $1 billion would recognize the “tremendous human and commercial interest in space exploration, the expansion of the BPS program beyond low Earth orbit, and the development of the space economy,” the report argues.

The report identifies three organizing themes for the BPS research: adapting to space, living and traveling in space, and probing phenomena hidden by gravity or terrestrial limitations. It also recommends the division pursue 11 major scientific questions related to these themes, which are based on more than 200 white papers submitted by scientists as well as other community outreach. The questions range from how interactions between organisms change within space environments to what new physical phenomena can only be discovered from space-based experiments.

Two major ‘research campaigns’ proposed

In addition to key scientific questions, the report proposes NASA pursue two ambitious “research campaigns” — a new construct for the division that is intended to achieve overarching scientific or exploration goals through multidisciplinary missions. It explains such campaigns are analogous to the spacecraft missions carried out by other NASA divisions in terms of “scope of inquiry, mission duration, acceptable risk, and cost.”

The first campaign, called Bioregenerative Life Support Systems (BLiSS), would support research into food production, water recycling, and waste processing. The report states such capabilities are essential for sustaining crewed space exploration missions for more than three years without additional supply missions. This research could also help address food security challenges on Earth, the report adds.

The second research campaign, called Manufacturing Materials and Processes for Sustainability in Space (MATRICES), aims to develop materials and equipment that can be adapted or reused to decrease space waste as well as new reprocessing and manufacturing techniques. Both efforts could also benefit sustainability on Earth, the report observes.

The report advises that these research campaigns should only be pursued if BPS is afforded additional funding and lays out a series of decision rules to guide research priorities in the event of more or less funding being allocated.

Cross-agency initiatives also proposed

While the research campaigns are designed to be led by the BPS division, the report also outlines two “Initiatives” or “futuristic concepts” that NASA should only pursue with “whole-of-government investment and coordination.”

The first initiative, called Probing the Fabric of Spacetime (PFaST), would deploy an ultraprecise quantum sensing network using space-based optical lattice clocks. This network would enable scientists to test whether gravitation fields have quantum aspects and would indirectly support the development of quantum sensing, computing, and information processing technologies on Earth, the report explains.

The second initiative, called the Biological and Physical Science Free Flyer (BiPS-Free), would create an uncrewed space science research venue to study the impact of gravitational forces and cosmic ray radiation on non-human living organisms and materials beyond low Earth orbit.

Looking beyond the ISS

BPS is best known for its research aboard the International Space Station, including exploring how multigenerational crops grow, 3D printing materials, producing pharmaceuticals, and sequencing DNA and RNA. But as the ISS nears retirement, the report emphasizes the importance of securing access to a wide range of platforms for BPS research, including remote environments on Earth, suborbital flights, low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Report co-chair Krystyn Van Vliet, an engineering professor at Cornell University, explained at the report’s release event on Sept. 12 that it is deliberately agnostic about where research should be conducted. “We want the scientists to propose the science to help identify the locations where their questions are best answered. And we think over the coming decade that we will sample multiple destinations,” Van Vliet said.

The report does, however, predict that the private sector will play a growing role in BPS research moving forward. As a result, it recommends that NASA work with commercial entities to ensure that science needs are “met with clear priority,” as commercial research objectives may not align with government-funded or fundamental research for public benefit.

To make the most of potential partnerships with commercial entities, the report suggests that NASA work with other agencies to establish an office or a mechanism for commercial sponsorship and collaboration with government research agencies and academia. In addition, the report urges BPS leaders to coordinate with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate to identify opportunities where research could take place on planned spaceflight missions or new platforms.

The report also argues that intra- and inter-agency collaboration are critical to secure broad participation in the field. Over the past decade, the BPS science community has “begun to be rebuilt” following years of limited research funding, the report states. Work remains, however, to increase the diversity of scientists in the BPS talent pipeline, particularly in attracting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities in graduate and postgraduate research. An “order of magnitude above the current funding” would help to “build the scientific community in size, diversity of technical expertise and lived experience, and capability to reach the science goals of the nation,” the report says.

BPS director reacts to report

Although NASA is yet to formally review and respond to the report, BPS director Lisa Carnell welcomed its recommendations, particularly the call to significantly increase her division’s budget.

While the BPS division does “a lot of amazing science” with a limited budget, largely through creative collaboration with other government agencies, a tenfold budget boost would bring it back on par with other divisions in the Science Mission Directorate, Carnell told FYI.

“Right now, I would call us the new kids on the block within the SMD,” Carnell said. Shifting agency priorities have significantly affected BPS since 2005, resulting in the division being moved to the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate and then back to the Science Mission Directorate in 2020, which is where Carnell feels it “really belongs.”

In addition to proposed budget increases, Carnell said she was pleased with the research questions and campaigns identified in the report, particularly the way they unified research interests across different disciplines.

“The materials campaign was a surprise, but a pleasant surprise. We haven’t been funding materials research for quite a while. To bring that back will breathe life back into the community,” Carnell said.

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