Status Report

American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology Input to National Research Council Request For Information

By SpaceRef Editor
January 16, 2009
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American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology Input to National Research Council Request	For Information

The American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB), founded in 1984, provides a forum to foster research, education and professional development in the multidisciplinary fields of gravitational and space biology. We are a diverse group of scientists, engineers and students who exchange ideas that bridge basic and applied biological research in space and gravitational sciences. Our society of ~350 professionals and students from universities, government, and industry represents the core community with a mission to work closely with NASA to create and disseminate knowledge about how living organisms respond to gravity and the spaceflight environment.

This knowledge provides key insights into normal and abnormal cell function and organism physiology that cannot be observed using traditional experimental approaches on Earth, and serves as a venue for breakthrough biomedical and biotechnological discoveries to advance human exploration of space and improve quality of life for the general public. Our mission includes education and outreach to the general public, students and teachers, Congress, NASA and other domestic and foreign governmental agencies. Our community stimulates students to pursue careers in life science, technology, engineering and mathematics and trains the next generation of scientists and bioengineers.

ASGSB views on issues that the NRC committee should consider

Fundamental space biology lost its identity as a budget item, “biological sciences research”, in 2006. Currently, the US civil space program neglects gravitational and space biology research not considered directly applicable to the health and performance of astronauts. NASA’s position ignores the numerous contributions that fundamental research in space and gravitational biology have made to human exploration in the past NASA programs. Present programs over-emphasize engineering and applied science for human space exploration. This imbalance does not fulfill NASA’s original purpose as specified by the Space Act of 1958.

Research funding for the International Space Station (ISS), advocated by life scientists and authorized by Congress, was siphoned off into spacecraft engineering. This action crippled the space biology research community participation and generated mistrust of NASA to follow through on its commitments. In the 2005 timeframe, over $1B annually was devoted to Biological and Physical Science Research. This funding was confiscated under the guise of redirecting it to higher priority research directed toward implementing the “Vision for Space Exploration”. NASA is asking other federal science agencies to conduct fundamental biological research. However, no transition plan, budget and agency has been identified to continue stewardship. Years of US invested research and intellectual capital are being abandoned without proper vetting.

This is not the time for the US to abandon its investment in fundamental gravitation and space biology research and miss the opportunity to utilize the ISS for its intended purpose. Other nations are using our investment in the ISS, including over 3,000 European Space Agency (ESA) scientists as well as Canadian, Japanese, Russian and Malaysian scientists that have both access and funding to conduct ISS experiments. Due to the lack of funds and flight equipment, US scientists are being forced to beg time and specimens from their international colleagues or turn their scientific interests away from space.

The ISS resources and the environment for research have been severely degraded by cut backs. Specifically, there is 1) inadequate hardware and instrumentation to support animal and plant housing and experimentation, including biocontainment work stations and variable speed centrifugation for inflight gravity controls, 2) a lack of frequent and affordable transportation to and from ISS, 3) absence of designated ground and facilities support for life science flight experiments, and 4) insufficient commercial and basic research entities participating jointly on missions.

Since 2005, the mission of the ASGSB has been decimated by the unprecedented retraction and termination of NASA funding for basic research, i.e., an 85% reduction in funding for “non-exploration” fundamental gravitational and space biology. Over 1,700 scientists and nearly 3,000 were negatively affected. This action occurred even though Congress voted to go forward with the International Space Station (ISS) as a national priority, and NASA argued that the life sciences are a timely priority. It was even recognized by President Bush that fundamental research was necessary to make possible safe and successful long-term exploration.

The historical pattern in the space program of cyclic funding and severe downsizing of the space life sciences research components exists with the International Space Station National Laboratory (ISSNL) and the ground and flight fundamental biology research programs. The decreased funding has severed links to academia, eliminated leveraging funding, and destroyed NASA’s corporate memory of how to build a balanced program of flight and ground research.

To effectively implement National Research Council-defined research priorities, the ISS National Laboratory needs a guiding management unit which includes a consortium of stakeholders who are tightly-coupled with external advisory and peer review. An empowered and budgeted administrative unit within NASA does not exist to fund and integrate the flight hardware and science for fundamental gravitational and space biology research. There is an absence of an external science advisory structure with oversight and influence on NASA programmatic priority decisions. Collectively, these deficiencies must be addressed to enable full utilization of ISSNL and reap translational benefits.
Basic animal and plant research is needed in space because multiple risks remain too high for long duration human spaceflight.

For example, exercise countermeasures used on 6-month ISS missions do not adequately counter the loss of muscle or bone, putting crewmembers at unacceptable levels of risk for musculoskeletal injury. Maintaining a sound musculoskeletal system will benefit aging Americans vulnerable to falls and bone fractures. A change in gravitational force has a profound effect on how the nervous system of an organism, including humans, adapts to its environment. Our knowledge of the consequences of long duration space on human nervous system health is largely inferential and many responses are maladaptive.

A balanced biology program should include a robust component of plant research and utilization in the US civil space program. Plants are key to the development of a self-sustaining life-support system, an essential component of any long term human missions. Several plant experiments from Europe, Japan, and the United States have been successfully performed on the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS), equipped with onboard centrifuges. The centrifuges enabled scientists to examine, for the first time, biological responses to fractional gravity, i.e., levels analogous to Lunar and Martian gravity.

Understanding infectious disease risks during spaceflight is critical to provide safe passage for human exploration to the moon and Mars. This issue is especially important because spaceflight 1) blunts the immune system in animals and humans, 2) increases bacterial virulence, 3) raises antibiotic resistance, 4) increases viral reactivation and 5) elevates microbiological risks for extended missions – all findings emanating from NASA’s fundamental life sciences research. Spaceflight provides a unique enabling research platform for innovations in infectious disease control for the crew and general public. Understanding how pathogens increase virulence during spaceflight may translate into development of new therapeutics and vaccines. Parallel arguments made in NRC reports (e.g. A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century 1998) remain valid today, and solutions are unlikely to come without a return to a balanced US civil space program.

Is ASGSB impacted by the US civil space program? Is ASGSB reliant on the US civil space program assets?

The mission of ASGSB is inextricably linked to the US civil space program. While there are opportunities and support for research from the private sector or from foreign governments, these are minor compared to NASA’s role. The members of ASGSB actively engaged in research depend on NASA assets such as ground based laboratories and facilities, large centrifuges and the NASA Brookhaven Radiation Laboratory as well as space based assets such as the International Space Station and automated free flyer spacecraft. The value of these assets are immense, but so is the value of the research capabilities leveraged at our nation’s universities’ laboratories, where much of the analysis is done.

The centerpiece of large scale gravitational biology research is the International Space Station. The ASGSB considers the following elements essential to make the ISS productive for research and generate a viable research community:

1) substantial and long term commitment of NASA to fund fundamental biology ground and flight research programs to enable response to recommendations in past NRC reports and the currently underway NRC life and physical sciences decadal study,

2) outfitting ISSNL with essential research facilities clearly defined and justified in NRC ISS reports, but systematically eliminated by NASA in spite of strong scientific justification (e.g. Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station 2006), and

3) invoking oversight and specific legislative language to ensure that resources directed to our science are specifically defined and not subject to reallocation without NRC oversight.

In addition, there should be substantial investment of federal and corporate sponsorship of ISSNL and other spaceflight research. A failure to utilize fully US investment in the space station, international free flyers such as collaborative research on the Russian Bion and Foton spacecraft, and neglecting, to the point of destruction, the ASGSB community is antithetical to competitive national goals and interests.

What does the US civil space program contribute to ASGSB?

An appropriately structured space program enables ASGSB to fulfill our research and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education missions that promote preeminence of the US in space research. Our goal is to use the spaceflight environment as a tool to bring a new technological approach to understanding living systems and discover basic biological responses and mechanisms. Organisms and cells respond in unique ways to spaceflight and exhibit novel characteristics. As recognized in the 1960’s, plants remain an ideal complement to a human crew for long-duration missions.

In the closed environments of a spacecraft, Lunar base, or Martian outpost, plants will be vital components of a regenerable life-support system that provides a local source of food, clean air and water. Resupply missions are impractical and costly for long-term missions and planetary habitation scenarios. The presence of plants has contributed to crewmember psychological well-being. Spaceflight offers a unique environment for discovery to advance human health and quality of life in several areas (infectious disease, immunology, cancer, aging, bone and muscle wasting and tissue engineering). Support of ASGSB science can foster commercial interests in the space program. Identification of key molecular pathogenic responses to the unique environment of spaceflight will lead to new targets for treatment and prevention strategies for human disease.

SpaceRef staff editor.