Decadal survey recommends massive funding increase for NASA biological and physical sciences

Decadal survey recommends massive funding increase for NASA biological and physical sciences

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PARIS — A new decadal survey for biological and physical sciences research in space recommends that NASA increase its spending on such activities by a factor of 10, a move the study says would restore such work to historical levels.

The decadal survey, titled “Thriving in Space” and released by the National Academies Sept. 12, argues the sharp increase in funding for NASA’s biological and physical sciences (BPS) division this decade is needed to tackle an ambitious set of new science questions in low Earth orbit and beyond.

“Research in the space environment has taken remarkable steps over the last decade, but NASA, the rest of the U.S. government, and the wider space community globally have bold exploration plans that require commensurate investments in biological and physical science research,” said the decadal survey’s co-chair, Krystyn Van Vliet, professor of engineering and vice president for research and innovation at Cornell University, in a statement.

NASA’s budget for BPS is $85 million in fiscal year 2023. NASA had requested $100 million for the division in its 2023 budget proposal, and is seeking $96.5 million for BPS in 2024.

The report argues that BPS research at NASA is “severely underfunded” based on both its portfolio of research, including topics recommended by the previous decadal survey in 2011, as well as historical funding. That division received nearly $700 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1996, but suffered severe cuts in the early 2000s as NASA shifted its emphasis to the Constellation exploration program. “In 2010, Constellation was canceled, but the funding for BPS was not restored and many researchers left the field,” the report notes.

Another factor driving the proposed spending increase is the science the decadal recommended NASA pursue. It identified 11 key science questions in three themes: adapting to space, living and traveling to space, and probing phenomena hidden by gravity or terrestrial limitations.

It also recommended two specific research campaigns that could offer “major and transformative scientific contributions” to research in those fields. One, called Bioregenerative Life Support Systems, or BliSS, would develop capabilities for long-duration spaceflight. The other, Manufacturing Materials and Processes for Sustainability in Space, or MATRICES, would study manufacturing techniques for use in space that reduce waste. The report backed other research in the science of gravitational fields and spacetime and researching the combined effects of radiation and microgravity on different life forms.

A larger budget, the decadal added, would help the BPS division handle fluctuations of a few tens of millions of dollars a year that are far more disruptive today. “Moreover, a budget nearer to $1 billion raises the profile of BPS science into the realm of the other divisions within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate,” the report stated, “tangibly recognizing the tremendous human and commercial interest in space exploration, the expansion of the BPS program beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), and the development of the space economy.”

Those issues, the report said, “all drive toward the inescapable conclusion that to provide sustainability and visibility for the program, while funding the science needed to support the expansion of space activities prioritized by this survey, the budget must rise by a factor of 10 well before the end of the decade.” [Emphasis in original.]

In addition to the science questions and funding levels, the report addressed the impending transition from the International Space Station to commercial space stations, known as commercial LEO destinations (CLDs) at NASA. The report warned that BPS science risks being overlooked during that transition, including a lack of “science-design requirements” for them.

“This delay may result in an unintended consequence that CLD companies develop revenue sources to focus on commercial markets, deemphasizing government-funded or fundamental research for public benefit,” the report stated. It called on NASA to engage with CLD developers “with all due haste to ensure that science needs are met with clear priority.”

“NASA should work to take advantage of the profusion of research capabilities from academia and through commercial space platforms to tackle these new challenges and ensure BPS can continue meeting the science needs of the nation,” said Rob Ferl, a professor at the University of Florida and other co-chair of the decadal survey, in a statement.

NASA said it would take some time to review the report before responding to its recommendations. “We look forward to using the survey to guide our next decade of transformative science as we maintain U.S. science leadership in space,” said Lisa Carnell, BPS division director at NASA, in an agency statement.

In an interview last month, Carnell said she hoped the decadal would have “very targeted priority focus areas” that would guide the agency’s investments in the field. She said she also wanted to see “decision rules” that would guide priorities should funding fall short of the report’s recommendations, an approach used in other NASA science decadal surveys. The decadal survey did include several decision rules based on changes in funding or access to the ISS and future CLDs.

Carnell said in the interview that she expected the agency to release a formal, high-level public response to the decadal survey, and host a town hall about it, by early next year.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...

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