UF distinguished professor leads National Academies panel on future of space research

Rob Ferl addresses a group of scientists in a laboratory

Rob Ferl (left), a leader in biological space science, co-led a new report on the future of the field (Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS).

Rob Ferl has spent his career working with NASA to understand what happens to Earth’s living organisms on the journey to space, so it has been particularly gratifying for him to co-chair a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine committee that is charting the course for the next 10 years of biological and physical sciences research in space.

That committee — the Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences Research in Space 2023-2032 — released its report Tuesday in Washington, calling on NASA to increase its investment in biological and physical sciences research tenfold over the next decade to prepare for more and longer space missions.

Their final publication, Thriving in Space, is a 350-page analysis of where biological and physical sciences research needs to go in the next decade.

Ferl and co-chair Krystyn Van Vliet, a professor of engineering and vice president for research and innovation at Cornell University, spent the past three years coordinating multiple scientific panels and taking input from hundreds of researchers around the country to produce the report.

Biological and physical sciences research provides the critical scientific and technological foundations that make space exploration possible, according to the report: “As humanity looks toward the Moon and Mars for future missions, this work is needed to help astronauts adapt and live in the harsh environments of space.”

“Imagine what might be accomplished if science could effectively grow plants for life support away from Earth, manufacture better materials from lunar or Martian resources, and reduce risks of extended space exploration by humans or by automated machines,” the report begins.

It then proposes three cross-cutting themes for biological and physical sciences research over the next decade to help make that dream a reality:

  • Adapting to Space concerns how the fundamental physics of space environments impact the ability of living systems to survive transition to and extended stays in space.
  • Living and Traveling in Space explores living systems and supportive environments over long durations in space, while deriving resources in space under the logistical and physical constraints of space.
  • Probing Phenomena Hidden by Gravity or Terrestrial Limitations seeks scientific insights that can be found only in space.

“Sustained human exploration beyond low Earth orbit presents science objectives and challenges we haven’t yet completed or in some cases even approached through the era of the International Space Station,” Ferl says. “Crews will spend more time in low Earth orbit, in deep space transit and while living and working in lunar or Martian stations. 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 biological and physical sciences research can continue meeting the science needs of the nation.”

Ferl, a distinguished professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and assistant vice president for research, considers this opportunity “my chance to have a lasting effect on an area of science that I have come to appreciate and love enormously.”

“The timing is actually pretty perfect, because as a seasoned space scientist, the chance to help lead the development of a document of this stature is kind of a capstone event to inform the next generation,” he says.

The survey was commissioned by NASA to “review the state of knowledge in the current and emerging areas of space-related biological and physical sciences research and generate consensus recommendations for a comprehensive vision and strategy for a decade of transformative science at the frontiers of biological and physical sciences research in space.”

The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, engineering, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 Congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Ferl calls the Academies “honest brokers” that can provide independent, non-political recommendations that NASA, Congress and the White House can use to make policy and budget decisions.

Ferl, who participated as a scientist and chaired a mid-term assessment of the previous decadal survey, says he appreciates that the process gives scientists the opportunity to influence policy in meaningful ways.

“We can influence science policy, and that puts us scientists in an active, forward-thinking, influential role in the development of science,” he says.

Joe Kays September 12, 2023