How NASA’s Planetary Science Division Obtains Community Feedback

Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)-authorized advisory committees provide advice to NASA at several different levels, with the Planetary Science Advisory Committee (PAC) providing advice specific to the Planetary Science Division (PSD). The Planetary Analysis/Assessment Groups (PAGs or AGs) provide additional feedback to NASA, both through their NASA liaisons and by providing findings to the PAC for deliberation. Together, these groups articulate scientific drivers and the needs of the community that PSD can feed into strategic planning, and therefore serve a valuable function for the agency.


NASA was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958; in the Declaration of Policy and Purpose of the Act, the first objective listed is “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” Later in the Act, it also directs NASA “to appoint such advisory committees as may be appropriate for purposes of consultation and advice to the Administration in the performance of its functions.” Such advisory committees continue to be used by NASA; further, within the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), several divisions have established Analysis Groups and/or Assessment Groups to provide a path for community feedback to NASA.

NASA advisory bodies

NASA’s Planetary Science Analysis/Assessment Groups serve a vital role in providing feedback between NASA and the planetary science community.

At the highest level, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) is a FACA advisory committee that provides advice directly to NASA’s Administrator. The NAC also has five committees, including the Science Committee; each of these committees is chaired by a member of the NAC and provides advice and recommendations to the full NAC, which can in turn provide advice to the individual NASA Directorates. Within SMD, each of the Divisions receives advice and recommendations by a dedicated advisory committee; PSD is served by the PAC. All of these committees fall under FACA, a law passed in 1972.

FACA committees are established to provide information and advice on a broad range of issues affecting federal policies and programs. Per the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), they should

  • Provide advice that is relevant, objective, and open to the public
  • Act promptly to complete their work
  • Comply with reasonable cost controls and record-keeping requirements.

Federal agencies may receive advice from groups established under FACA; there are ~1,000 FACA committees government-wide, and new advisory committees “can be created only when they are essential to the performance of a duty or responsibility conveyed upon the executive branch by law” (GSA).

The Planetary Science Advisory Committee (PAC)

The PAC was rechartered in 2021: the full PAC Charter can be found at The most important part of the charter, however, is this:

3. Objectives and Scope of Activities: The PAC shall draw on the expertise of its members to provide advice and make recommendations to the Director, Planetary Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters (hereinafter, “Director, Planetary Science Division”) on planetary science programs, policies, plans, and priorities. The PAC’s recommendations and analysis can be used to inform decisions on the programmatic scope and priorities, as well as the implementation of planetary science programs. In addition, the PAC will provide a regular forum for broad discussion of planetary science and the role of planetary science within and outside of NASA.

The PAC consists of 13 members, each serving up to a 3-year term. In the spring of each year, NASA Headquarters (HQ) issues a call for nominations (including self-nominations) for individuals to serve on the PAC. PSD carefully evaluates all the nominations and recommends a slate of new PAC members to the Associate Administrator for SMD; in so doing, PSD strives to ensure that the PAC is diverse on multiple axes, including scientific expertise, institution type, career stage, and other factors identified in the President’s 2021 Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. New members are notified over the summer, and terms for new members start on October 1.

All members of the PAC are either civil servants or are designated as special government employees; as such, they must take ethics training prior to participation in any PAC activities, and they must submit financial disclosures to allow identification of any potential conflicts of interest. Both ethics training and financial disclosures are repeated on an annual basis. Any PAC members with an identified conflict of interest must recuse themselves from any discussion of those topics in the PAC meeting (i.e., the principal investigator for a mission should not participate in any PAC discussion/deliberation regarding that mission).


The Mapping and Planetary Spatial Infrastructure Team (MAPSIT) was established by NASA and the planetary science community in the fall of 2014, following recommendations from the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council. Originally named the Cartography Research Assessment Group (CRAG), the MAPSIT name was adopted in the fall of 2015 to be more inclusive of all aspects of spatial data analysis and associated infrastructure.

The PAC typically meets three times per year. All PAC meetings are announced publicly through the Federal Register with an attached agenda. Typically, notices are through the Federal Register about two months prior to the meeting. As required by FACA, every meeting is open to the public to ensure transparency of PAC deliberations. (Some meetings may be held in private provided that the meeting meets very specific criteria as laid out in FACA, but PAC meetings generally do not meet these criteria.) SMD currently supports this through video teleconferencing. During each meeting, the PAC strives to rigidly adhere to the agenda so that individuals can anticipate the timing of discussions. Only PAC members and speakers are allowed to ask questions or provide commentary during the meeting; each meeting also includes a short public comment period during which members of the public can ask questions of the speakers.

During the meeting, the PAC discusses any potential findings or recommendations. The PAC can only make a formal finding if the core substance of the finding was discussed during an open session of the PAC. Again, this is to ensure transparency as required by FACA. Following the PAC meeting, PAC members can discuss and revise the exact wording of findings, provided that the final finding does not deviate significantly from the discussion during the public session. It is important to note that the PAC is a consensus body; any finding represents the consensus of the entire PAC.

Each meeting also has a professional notetaker in attendance to provide minutes. The minutes are sent to the Executive Secretary of the PAC (a NASA HQ civil servant) who distributes them to all speakers to verify their accuracy. The minutes are posted on the NASA PAC website, along with all the presentations given to the PAC for public view. The PAC findings, when complete, are delivered to PSD and are also posted on the site. PAC findings should be submitted within 90 days of the meeting.

MExAG logo

The most recent addition to the list of planetary AGs is the Mercury Exploration Assessment Group (MExAG), a community-based, interdisciplinary body that was established by NASA in 2020 to provide science input and analysis needed to plan and prioritize Mercury research and exploration activities.

As a FACA committee, the PAC is an independent advisory group. PSD does not restrict the PAC’s topics of discussion in any way but does try to highlight topics where advice is desired. It is important to remember, however, that the PAC makes findings and recommendations. (Findings are observations made by the PAC that do not request a response; e.g., “The PAC commends NASA on the successful landing of Perseverance.” Recommendations advise a course of action for PSD and should receive an official NASA response.) While the wisdom of the PAC is highly valued, PSD is not obligated to follow the recommendations and advice provided. However, as a matter of course, a portion of each PAC meeting is devoted to responding to the findings from the previous meeting. The PAC is not an oversight body; FACA committees cannot direct agency activity, including that of individual agency employees.

The Planetary Analysis/Assessment Groups (PAGs or AGs)

In addition to the PAC, PSD receives feedback through nine different AGs. The nine AGs are community-organized, NASA-sponsored groups. (NASA provides funding support for meeting organization and some travel.) As the name implies, they are not FACA-authorized advisory groups; they do not provide formal findings and/or recommendations to NASA. The current AGs are

  • Extraterrestrial Materials Analysis Group (ExMAG)
  • Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG)
  • Mapping and Planetary Spatial Infrastructure Team (MAPSIT)
  • Mars Exploration Analysis Group (MEPAG)
  • Mercury Exploration Assessment Group (MExAG)
  • Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG)
  • Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG)
  • Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG)
  • Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG) [ExoPAG is formerly an AG reporting to the Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), chartered by the Astrophysics Division; however, because exoplanets are a cross-divisional topic with significant involvement from planetary scientists, the ExoPAG also provides feedback to the PAC and to PSD.]

Additional information on each of the AGs can be found at; the one exception is the ExoPAG, which can be found at For the eight AGs listed on the LPI website, links lead to additional information for each AG, including the terms of reference (ToR). The ToR for each AG briefly describes the purpose of each AG, the community it serves, its planned activities, and the organization and process by which it operates. Each AG is led by a chair; the chair is selected by the community in consultation with the Director of PSD. The chair is assisted by a steering committee, and together they help plan group activities. Each AG as a whole consists of anyone who wishes to participate; there are no restrictions on participation, although each member must agree to abide by the AG Code of Conduct. The open membership of the AGs is critical for ensuring that every member of the community has a voice and a path for providing feedback to NASA.

The primary activity of the AGs is the discussion of issues relevant to their specific community. AGs meet one to two times per year (depending on the AG and the size of the relevant community) for open discussion. The agenda is typically set by the chair and the steering committee; NASA plays no part in setting the meeting agenda. Each AG has a HQ liaison — a program scientist from PSD who regularly attends the meetings and provides insight into NASA processes and policies for the group. Other HQ personnel can be invited to AG meetings to discuss specific issues relevant to the AG’s community and may attend depending on availability.

AG meetings typically result in “findings” by the individual AGs. Findings from the AGs make their way to NASA through regular reporting to the PAC. The AGs give presentations at most PAC meetings and have an opportunity to highlight findings for the PAC’s attention. The PAC then can determine if either a formal response from NASA or specific advice from the PAC is warranted. In general, AGs are encouraged to focus on one or two specific findings for the PAC’s attention. As mentioned above, any finding/recommendation made by the PAC must be publicly discussed, and even with a small number of findings from each AG, it is not possible to publicly discuss every one of them. In addition, the HQ liaison for each AG can provide feedback on potential AG findings; this can help clarify potential issues and obviate the need for some findings to go to the PAC.

LEAG logo

The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) was established in 2004 to support NASA in providing analysis of scientific, technical, commercial, and operational issues in support of lunar exploration objectives and of their implications for lunar architecture planning and activity prioritization. Membership and participation in LEAG consists of lunar and planetary scientists, life scientists, engineers, technologists, human systems specialists, mission designers, managers, and other professionals drawn from the broad community of academia, industry, government, and the commercial sector.

The other function of the AGs is analysis. AGs can establish, either at NASA’s request or of their own volition, Specific Action Teams (SATs). SATs are used to address specific questions of interest to NASA and/or the community. An example is the Analog Objectives for Artemis SAT established by LEAG at NASA’s request. The group was given the task of cataloging and prioritizing scientific objectives and science operations in preparation for Artemis missions that could be achieved through analog activities, and produced a report for NASA’s consumption ( that will help guide strategic planning for lunar science activities. While SATs are not common, they are potentially very valuable because of the specificity of their activities.

In addition to the nine AGs, the cross-AG Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) Working Group was established in 2019. This group consists of members from each of the AGs and is dedicated to addressing IDEA issues for both the community and for NASA. The cross-AG nature of the group recognizes the broad importance of such issues. The group also is given an opportunity to provide findings to the PAC (similar to the AGs).


As stated above, the AGs established by NASA within PSD work together with the PAC to provide invaluable feedback to NASA by articulating scientific drivers and the needs of the community. This feedback feeds into strategic planning and therefore serves a valuable function for the agency.