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
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
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
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 science...be 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 http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11225.html
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.