While astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are fully booked with scientific and engineering research for now, most of that work has involved projects the U.S. space agency is funding to advance the skills and technology it will need to explore deeper into the Solar System.
Still to come is research “in the national interest” that, in theory, is open to all comers under a “U.S. National Laboratory” concept ordered by Congress in 2005, whenand its partners were in the throes of actually building the facility in orbit.
Hoping to broaden use of the ISS beyond NASA's traditional community of space scientists and aerospace engineers, lawmakers stipulated that NASA find and hire an independent nonprofit organization to operate the National Lab. Last year Space Florida—the aerospace economic development agency of the state hardest hit by job cuts associated with the space shuttle retirement—won NASA's competition for the non-governmental organization (NGO)role with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) that it set up to bid for the work. William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations, selected Casis from a field that included the Battelle Memorial Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Essentially, Casis's job is to make it as simple as possible for researchers to place their experiments on the space station, and to reach out to nontraditional industries—and investors—to proselytize the potential benefits of microgravity research. But the Casis launch has been hampered by bureaucratic infighting that led, on Feb. 29, to the resignation of Jeanne L. Becker as the first executive director.
A cancer researcher who worked with early cell-culture experiments on the ISS, Becker complained that a Pennsylvania consulting company—ProOrbis— drafted both the NASA reference model for the National Lab and the Space Florida proposal to run the lab, and later “wrote themselves into the proposal as prime source for Casis organizational oversight and integration,” according to her letter of resignation.
Becker, who declined to be interviewed for this article, blamed “undue and onerous political pressures” and “unrealistic expectations” by congressional staffers, NASA's ISS division director, Mark Uhran, and ProOrbis for hampering Casis's startup operations.
“If expecting the winner to honor their proposal is unrealistic, then that's my unrealistic expectation,” says Uhran, adding that he requested a NASA Inspector General audit of Casis. That review is ongoing.
Space Florida, meanwhile, appointed an interim director—former Astrotech President James Royston—to continue the work Becker started in getting the NGO up and running, and launched a search for a permanent executive director and a permanent board of directors to oversee the operation.
“Dr. Becker's letter is out there, and a lot of people have read it,” says Royston. “That's the big elephant in the room.”
Within NASA, there is a general feeling among some of those closest to the problem that things are moving about as fast as could be expected with a setup that has never been tried before.
“They are standing up a brand-new organization to go do this job,” says Marybeth Edeen, deputy manager of the ISS Research Integration Office and formerly NASA manager for the U.S. National Lab. “We weren't quite sure what to expect. We had a high-level plan laid out, and they are on task in some and a little behind in others, and a little ahead in others. When you don't quite know exactly how it's going to work out, you have to adjust as you go.
Royston says he has been using the lost time to strengthen procedures before the organization moves into full-up operations, and to “make sure we have everything ready to go.”
“It was an opportunity for me as the interim executive director to get all the facts on the table and spend some time with our legal teams to understand clearly and lay out all the guidelines for us as an organization to move forward with our industry partners, with our vendors, with our suppliers, et cetera,” he says.
One of the functions Casis has been assigned is matching commercial ISS experiments with private funders, and raising funds as a nonprofit for its own grant program to back research. Among the issues it has faced is the need to be registered in all 50 states in order to accept funding, a process that involved meeting 50 different sets of state rules and regulations, according to Edeen.
“They have made significant progress since they stood up in August,” she says. “There's all the regulatory stuff that has to be done just to get off the ground.”