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National Research Council

What is the National Research Council?

Decadal Surveys and On-Going NRC Studies About Space

Recent Reports from the Space Studies Board

Recent Reports from the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board

Classic NRC Reports

What is the National Research Council?

The National Research Council (NRC) is one of the four entities that comprise the National Academies. The other three are the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The National Academies provide advice to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine. 

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was created by a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In 1916, the NAS established the NRC as its “operating arm” to conduct studies requested by and paid for by the federal government or other sponsors. The NAS created the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1970. 

The National Academies (referred to as one entity though it is comprised of four), is non-profit organization and are not part of the U.S. Government. However, because the original institution, the NAS, was created by law, some operations are subject to certain conditions. For example, the NRC is not permitted to compete for federal contracts (so all contracts must be sole-sourced) and NRC studies are subject to Section 15 of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). 

NRC reports are written by committees of expert volunteers from academia, industry, the government, and other organizations. Most NRC reports are managed by one of the more than 60 “Boards” into which the NRC is administratively divided. Most reports about the space program are issued by the Space Studies Board (SSB) or the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB). Other Boards also may be involved in space-related studies, including the Board on Physics and Astronomy, the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, the Ocean Studies Board, and the Air Force Studies Board.

Thus, an NRC "Board" is composed of the members of the Board (which provides strategic direction for a Board's activities), a varying number of ad hoc study committees that are created specifically to write a report on a specific topic and terminate once the study is complete, and the staff. In some cases, such as the SSB, there also may be standing committees on a particular topic or discipline. SSB has four standing commitees, while ASEB has none. The SSB and ASEB sometimes post presentations made at meetings of the Boards and standing committees on their websites.   SSB reorganized its standing committees in 2012, eliminating the Committee on Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL, see below) and making other changes.  The current SSB standing committees are: 

Final COEL Meeting Presentations

The final meeting of the SSB Committee on Origins and Evolution of Life was held June 7-8, 2011 at the NRC's meeting center in Woods Hole, MA. SSB Director Michael Moloney explained the former Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX) would absorb the activities of COEL and be renamed the Committee on Planetary Exploration and Astrobiology. SSB Senior Program Officer David Smith reviewed the activities of the SSB in astrobiology over the past 50 years and what to expect in the future. A number of other presentations were made during the meeting. The Powerpoint slides are provided here:

Decadal Surveys and On-Going NRC Studies About Space 

The SSB and ASEB typically have several studies underway at any given time, of which a large percentage are space-related. The following list shows the on-going NRC space-related studies with links to NRC websites where further information can be obtained, including who is on each committee and past and future meeting dates and agendas. These websites are part of the NRC's Current Projects System, which can be searched for any on-going NRC study.  

Decadal Surveys

What is a Decadal Survey?

One of the signature products of the SSB (and other NRC boards) are "Decadal Surveys." The term Decadal Survey is derived from the fact that these studies look forward to the next 10 years (a decade) of research in a particular discipline and are performed about every 10 years. They use a community-based consensus-building process for determining priorities for research. The first Decadal Survey was for ground-based astronomy and astrophysics in 1964. Today, the astronomy and astrophysics Decadal Survey sets priorities for both ground-based and space-based research in that field. The NRC's Board on Physics and Astronomy (BPA) and the SSB jointly conduct that survey. More recently, the SSB has produced Decadal Surveys in planetary science, solar and space physics, and earth science and applications from space. The first Decadal Survey for biological and physical sciences in space was published in 2011.

Decadal Surveys are highly valued by NASA and other agencies because they represent a consensus of the researchers in a particular discipline (the "community") as to what are the most important areas of research and the order in which specific missions should be built and, for NASA, launched. The priorities identified in a Decadal Survey are usually strictly followed, budgets permitting. Congress also finds these studies useful.  In the 2008 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 110-422), Congress directed NASA to request such studies from the NRC on a periodic basis and to require that they include independent cost estimates of recommended missions and "trip-wires" - conditions under which the priority given to a mission might be reexamined.

Current Versions of Decadal Surveys 

While not a space-related study, ASEB performed a Decadal Survey for civil aeronautics research that is available here.  BPA has undertaken Decadal Surveys for other disciplines under its purview that are available on its website.

"Performance Assessments" for the Decadal Surveys

In Sec. 301 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (P.L.109-155), Congress directed NASA to obtain external "performance assessments" for each of the NASA science divisions at 5-year intervals. In practice, these have become NRC reviews of progress towards achieving the recommendations of the respective Decadal Survey. Informally they are called "mid-term reviews" since they are undertaken approximately mid-way through the decade that was the subject of the associated Decadal Survey.  

Ongoing NRC Space-Related Studies   

Recent Reports from the Space Studies Board

SSB reports can be obtained for free as long as supplies last by contacting the Board at or by downloading a free PDF version from the National Academies Press website.

Recent Reports from the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB)

ASEB reports can be obtained for free while supplies last by contacting the Board at or by downloading a free PDF version from the National Academies Press website (follow link below).

Other Classic NRC Reports

In addition to the Decadal Surveys, other NRC reports become classics that are widely cited. Some that appear to be of most interest to the space community that are not listed above are shown here. 

Beyond Fortress America: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World (2009, Policy and Global Affairs) 

NASA's Beyond Einstein Program: An Architecture for Implementation (2007, SSB and BPA) 

Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2007, Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy) 

The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon: Final Report (2007, SSB) 

The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems (2007, SSB) 

Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration (2007, SSB and ASEB) 

An Assessment of Balance in NASA's Science Programs (2006, SSB) 

Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope: Final Report (2004, SSB and ASEB) 

A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine into the Next Century (1998, SSB) 

U.S.-European Collaboration in Space Science (1998, SSB) 

The Human Exploration of Space (1997, SSB)

Toward a New Era in Space:  Realigning Policies to New Priorities (the Stever report)  (1988, SSB)