Insights into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant research funding

NASA funding can help propel research
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by Seema Sharma

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded in 1958, to help accelerate the existing efforts for aerospace research and development in the United States. Now in its 60th anniversary year, NASA offers a wide range of funding opportunities to researchers in aeronautics, human space flight research, biological systems in space, atmospheric sciences (including climate change), physical sciences, robotics and astrophysics.

The vast majority of grants are available through specific calls on the NASA solicitation and proposal integrated review and evaluation system (NSPIRES). All open calls, (known as solicitations), are available to view on the NSPIRES site and also posted on grants.gov. Before being eligible to submit a completed proposal, you need to ensure that you are affiliated with an organisation that is already registered on the system. Further information on registration can be found here. NASA accepts a few unsolicited grant proposals every year if they are of close relevance to their strategic plan. Interested applicants are required to follow the guidance for unsolicited proposals.

Researchers can submit their application in response to calls through either the NSPIRES site or grants.gov platform. It must be noted, however, that it is common to provide a notice of intention (NOI) before submitting a proposal, and this must be done via NSPIRES. General guidelines for submitting a grant proposal in response to a NASA funding announcement (FA) can be found in their guidebook.

Its crucial to ensure that you pay close attention to the deadlines, eligibility criteria, program goals, objectives, funding restrictions and submission information that are included in the FA. All deadlines for the FA must be adhered too, as well as the requested formats, (page length, font, spacing), for submission. FA’s include the details of your assigned program officer, who serves as a point of contact for the submission process.

Your proposal should demonstrate that you have exceptional knowledge of research to date and the key publications in the area of your proposed project. The impact of your project should be detailed with clear information on how it will extend or advance current understanding. Pay specific attention to writing a detailed and accurate budget and justification of expenditure for your project, this should include procurements needed for the project. Salaries and staff costs are usually included in the cover pages. A detailed budget for all other costs, excluding staff and associated overheads, need to be included in the main proposal document. A total budget document is also included to summarise all costs. A lack of information on budgets in submitted proposals is currently recognised by NASA as being the number one reason for grant rejection.

All grant applications received are subject to full peer review. The review process at NASA includes and administrative, technical and financial assessment. The technical assessment is undertaken by qualified peers of those submitting the proposal who have advanced knowledge in the field. They may not necessarily be specialists, so its important that your proposal is written with clarity and ease of understanding. NASA often recruits those previously successfully funded with grants as reviewers. The reviewal process takes between 150 days and 220 days and is subject to the funds being approved by the Federal budget process.

NASA has a specific postdoctoral program, and there are currently over 650 opportunities listed on its dedicated program pages. Postdoc opportunities are available to those who are within five years of having completed their doctorates. There are opportunities for both US and non-US citizens and annual application deadlines are March 1, July 1 and November 1. After the first year as a postdoctoral fellow, scientists interested in management may apply to the postdoctoral management program at NASA headquarters.

All research is primarily conducted at NASA’s ten research centres and affiliated university laboratories across the United States. There are four mission directorates at NASA including the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, the Space Technology Mission Directorate, the Science Directorate and the Aeronautics Research Directorate. Each directorate encompasses a number of research divisions with specified programs for awarding grants.

In a separate initiative, NASA’s office of education also issues funding in the form of internships, fellowships and scholarships. The office of education actively encourage those underrepresented in STEM careers, including women, minorities and individuals with disabilities to apply. The majority of current programs are aimed at undergraduate level students. Full details of current opportunities for the latter are available separately to research grants, on these relevant pages.

Research Opportunities by NASA Directorates

The Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate

The Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate includes the division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA). The latter was founded in 2011.The SLPSRA administers a Human Research Program – researching the specific effects on human health and performance of spaceflight, a Space Biology program – looking at the effect of spaceflight and zero gravity on biological systems as a whole, and a Physical Sciences program – researching the effect of spaceflight on physical systems. The International Space Station is an integral part of conducting research in the latter fields.

Further information on NASA’s life sciences research, including a research roadmap can be found in their Life Sciences Data Archive .Note that there are some NASA funded virtual institutes including the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRI for Space Health), and National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) that conduct research focussing on maintaining astronaut health for NASA.

The Physical Sciences research program covers six disciplines including biophysics, combustion science, complex fluids, fluid physics, fundamental physics and materials science. It has two elements to the research covered, the first being exploring the effects of weightlessness on physical systems, and the other researching space exploration technologies, for example power generation, environmental monitoring and space propulsion.

An online database of all research projects from 2004 supported by the SLPSRA are available to search and view in a dedicated taskbook here.

Space Technology Mission Directorate

NASA’s second directorate – the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), focusses, as its name suggests, on high-technology development to enable NASA’s current and future space missions. There are a number of ways it funds and collaborates with partners, including research grants and industry partnerships. More detailed background can be found on the STMD Directorate pages..

Research grants are specifically funded for four different areas. The first is as Space Technology Research Fellowships (NSTRF) to conduct Masters or Doctoral Research at one of NASA’s ten centres or affiliated university laboratories in the US. To qualify, candidates must be graduates with permanent residency in the US. There were 65 fellowships awarded last year.

The second research grant area is available for Early Career Faculty.  The funding is accredited to outstanding early career researchers at US universities who are conducting space technology development of interest to NASA. Priority is given to groundbreaking, high-risk and high-pay off projects. The grant awards made are typically for $200K/year over a three year period. There were eight grants awarded last year in areas including integrated photonics sensors, microfludics sample acquisition and handling for space exploration, and cognitive communications.

A third area of funding is awarded through the STMD’s Early Stage Innovation (ESI) program. Eligible research applicants must demonstrate their invention of highly innovative and disruptive technologies at an early-stage of development. Priority is given to those that would address critical needs in NASA’s space exploration program. Successful candidates are awarded up to $500K per year for a maximum of three years. There were 14 grant awards last year in fields that spanned many topics including advanced coating systems for nuclear thrust propulsion, the extraction of water from extraterrestrial surfaces and lightweight lattice materials for space structures.

Finally, the fourth area under the STMD funds establishing new Space Technology Research Institutes, in the form of multidisciplinary research team collaborations. There were two successful awards made last year for this initiative. The first was for a new institute named The Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES), and the second was for The Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP) 

Science Directorate

The third directorate is referred to as the Science Directorate (abbreviated to SARA). It is organised into four scientific divisions that encompass heliophysics, earth science, planetary science, and astrophysics. Interested applicants can visit specific resource pages that provide further general information for those looking for research opportunities in the Science Directorate. Funding announcements for the Directorate are available under the heading of Research Opportunities in Earth and Space Sciences (ROSES), the most up-to-date version of which is available here. Current postdoctoral opportunities covering many of the fields included in the Science directorate are also available on NASA’s Postdoctoral Program pages.

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

Aeronautics research at NASA is organised by the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD). Current research strategy at the directorate is organised in six areas that have been based on the envisaged future demands of aviation and air transportation for the next 25 years. These include a transition to low-carbon propulsion systems to reduce environmental impact, enabling the safe and efficient growth in global aviation operations and the development of supersonic aircraft.

Although the majority of ARMD research is carried out at four NASA research centres: Ames Research Center and Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, Glenn Research Center in Ohio, and Langley Research Center in Virginia, there are also multi-institutional collaborations and a few industry partners across the US. At present there are no open calls listed under this directorate on NSPIRES or grants.gov. Recent completed projects can be viewed here.

Good luck with your grant application!

Useful links

NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) – https://nspires.nasaprs.com/external/index.do

Guidebook for proposers responding to a NASA funding announcement – https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/procurement/nraguidebook/proposer2017.pdf

NASA Postdoctoral Program Opportunities – https://npp.usra.edu/opportunities/

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