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Date:  April 5, 2011




Renewal of a Life and Physical Sciences Research Program at NASA Could Facilitate Longer, Farther Human Space Missions


WASHINGTON -- By elevating its life and physical sciences research program, NASA could achieve the biological understanding and technical breakthroughs needed to allow humans to be sent deeper into space, including to Mars, says a new National Research Council report.  In addition, access to the space environment -- for example, on the International Space Station -- will open up further opportunities for groundbreaking research in the physical and life sciences.  The report, one of a series of decadal surveys that the Research Council has completed for NASA and the first on interdisciplinary life and physical sciences for exploration missions, lays out a research agenda for the next decade that could bring about developments with substantial payoffs for human exploration of space. 


Several years of budgetary challenges and priority being given to other programs at NASA have left the life and physical sciences program dramatically reduced in both scale and scope, with no clear institutional home at the space agency, according to the committee that wrote the report.  As a result NASA is now poorly positioned to take full advantage of the laboratory environment offered by the International Space Station.


Strong leadership with sufficient scientific gravitas is necessary to ensure that the life and physical sciences program has a voice at the table during deliberations about NASA priorities and resources and to highlight the central role that the life and physical sciences play in human exploration missions, the report says.  It concludes that re-establishing the program under a single management structure housed in an appropriate part of the agency will be key to the program’s success.  In addition, a stable and adequate funding base is required to support a robust research program that attracts top scientists.


“A focused life and physical sciences program can make possible the achievements that bring the space community, policymakers, and the U.S. public to a realization that we are ready for the next significant phase of human space exploration,” said the committee co-chair, Elizabeth Cantwell, director of mission development, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.


For example, effective countermeasures are needed to offset the adverse effects of the space environment on the health and performance capabilities of astronauts on prolonged missions along with a deeper understanding of how gravity affects the human body.  This type of information will be essential to realize extended space voyages like Mars missions or a potential base on the moon.  In addition, astronauts on long missions would require the ability to collect or produce large amounts of water.  Research in the physical and life sciences that yields game-changing discoveries like regenerative power sources would also help make deep space travel feasible. 


According to the report, research to allow extended human space exploration will also offer terrestrial benefits.  “Research in the life and physical sciences can enable space missions and, as a unique benefit, there is critical research that can in turn be enabled on Earth by access to space,” said Wendy Kohrt, professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and co-chair of the committee.  “With the advantage of the space environment, we believe there is an opportunity to significantly advance fundamental scientific understanding.”


The study was sponsored by NASA.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer

Lorin Hancock, Media Relations Associate

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail


Additional resources:

Project Website


Pre-publication copies of Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board


Space Studies Board


Committee on Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space


Elizabeth R. Cantwell (co-chair)
Engineering Mission Development
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, Calif.

Wendy Kohrt (co-chair)
Professor of Medicine
Division of Geriatric Medicine
Anschutz Medical Campus
University of Colorado


Lars Berglund
Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean for Research, and
Clinical and Translational Science Center
University of California


Nicholas P. Bigelow
Lee A. DuBridge Professor of Physics and Optics, and
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Laboratory for Laser Energetics
University of Rochester
Rochester, N.Y.

Leonard H. Caveny
Aerospace Consultant
Fort Washington, Md.

Vijay K. Dhir 1
Distinguished Professor and Dean
Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science
University of California
Los Angeles


Joel Dimsdale
Professor of Psychiatry
School of Medicine
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla


Nikolaos A. Gatsonis
Mechanical Engineering Department, and
Aerospace Engineering Program
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Worcester, Mass.

Simon Gilroy
Professor of Botany
University of Wisconsin

Benjamin D. Levine

Professor of Internal Medicine and Cardiology,  


Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine;

Harry S. Moss Heart Chair for Cardiovascular Research, and 

Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Science 
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center


Rodolfo R. Llinas 2 (through 2009)
Thomas and Suzanne Murphy Professor of Neuroscience and Chair
Department of Physiology and Neuroscience
Langone Medical Center
New York University

New York City


Kathryn V. Logan
Principal Research Engineer Emerita
Materials Science and Engineering
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and
Adjunct Professor
Georgia Institute of Technology



Philippa Marrack 2, 3 (through 2010)
Howard Hughes Medical Institute;
Senior Faculty Member
Integrated Department of Immunology
National Jewish Health; and
Departments of Biochemistry and Microbiology and Immunology and Medicine
University of Colorado


Gabor A. Somorjai 2
Department of Chemistry
University of California


Charles M. Tipton
Professor Emeritus
Department of Physiology
Arizona Health Science Center
University of ArizonaTucson


Jose L. Torero
Building Research Establishment/Royal Academy of Engineering Centre for Fire Safety Engineering
School of Engineering and Electronics
University of Edinburgh


Robert Wegeng

Chief Engineer

Energy and Efficiency Division

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Richland, Wash.


Gayle E. Woloschak
Department of Radiation Oncology
Feinberg School of Medicine

Northwestern University




Sandra Graham

Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering  


2 Member, National Academy of Sciences


3 Member, Institute of Medicine