HOUSTON – NASA’s International Space Station program plans to greatly compress certification schedules for science and exploration technology hardware in a bid to lower costs for researchers with interest in placing experiments and technology projects aboard the orbiting lab.

The streamlining is aimed at scientists, engineers from the private sector and academia as well as partner nations and the agency itself.

The push coming from the ISS program office, which is hosted by Johnson Space Center, may be especially helpful to scientists and engineers working with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, which sometimes takes more than a year to be certified as safe, reliable and robust enough for duty in the weightless environment of the six-person outpost.

The timing coincides with plans announced by the White House last January to extend operations aboard the $3 billion/year ISS from 2020 until at least 2024, which added a note of urgency to an initiative already underway and beginning to gather internal momentum by mid-2013.

NASA’s major European, Russian, Japanese and Canadian partners are weighing the proposed four-year extension against other priorities. Meanwhile, a NASA authorization measure passed by the U.S. House in June with bipartisan support urges NASA to "take all necessary measures" to support the "full utilization" of the ISS, while minimizing operations costs "to the extent practicable."

"From the station perspective, if as a program we don’t make this philosophical shift, we won’t make it. We have to make this shift and become a customer-based organization," said Ryan Prouty, an ISS program research integration manager who leads the NASA Revolutionize ISS for Science and Technology (RISE) team. The 10-member panel of ISS program, safety and contractor personnel was formed in August 2014 by NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini to transition the station from its lengthy and difficult development and assembly period (1984 to 2011) to a thriving research facility, while policymakers push to turn low Earth orbit operations over to the private sector.

The RISE team embraced a motto of sorts, "Make the right thing to do, the right thing to do."

"This is huge," Prouty said. "If we do this right and we are successful, we should be able to look back three to four years from now and see a square wave of change in the program and how we do our business."

Prouty anticipates a formal rollout of an implementation plan for a reduction in the certification of ISS experiments and technology demonstration plans within two months.

"We will do some quick fixes," she predicts. "If we need new tools or resources, it might be a bit longer. But this is probably a six- to 12-month process to get through the whole shift."

The streamlining plan has already been presented to NASA Ames, Marshall, Goddard, Glenn and Kennedy as well as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – centers that frequently sponsor research activities on the ISS. The strategy has been briefed to representatives from the agency’s European and Japanese partners as well. Their lab modules, Columbus and Kibo, have internal volume accessible to NASA and U.S. National Lab-backed research projects under long-standing partnership agreements.

"We are trying to spread the word as fast as we can," said Duane Hightower, of NASA’s ISS management integration office and a risk manager who is leading the COTS streamlining efforts.

Hightower became an advocate in early 2012, when he was charged by ISS management with accelerating the hardware certification process for a commercial fundoscope, a medical device used to image the retina. The device was important to an urgent research effort to address vision changes experienced by some astronauts during long periods of weightlessness. Researchers wanted a means of examining the eye in flight as well as before and after.

The typical six- to 12-month certification process for station hardware deemed critical to astronaut and ISS safety was reduced to less than three months to launch the fundoscope, without increasing risk. Certification costs were cut by 75%, Hightower says. Since then, 20 COTS pieces have followed the new certification path, which brings project participants, including safety personnel, together at the outset of a project to move equipment through the testing and documentation phases more rapidly.

In late January 2015, the ISS program plans to record imagery of the European Space Agency’s fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, following nearly six months of cargo activities at the ISS. The imaged breakup of the ATV-5 will be used to model the demise of the much larger ISS, when it is deorbited at the end of its operations.

Engineers selected a commercial-off-the-shelf digital camera with peripherals, including a large fan motor, to record the breakup from the station’s Cupola observation deck. The camera was delivered in late October and is scheduled to complete certification on Nov. 17, in time for a SpaceX resupply mission launch as soon as Dec. 1, said Angela Olstad, an ISS avionics and software program manager.

Pre-certification planning for the camera acquisition was carried out on Aug. 28, and previous certification costs were reduced by 75%, she said.

The streamlining is also being applied to hardware headed to the ISS for future human deep-space mission evaluations, said Trent Martin, assistant director for advanced development projects in JSC’s Exploration, Integration and Science Directorate.

Martin is shepherding a handful of pathfinders through the expedited process, including an orbital debris impact sensor. The sensor will be attached to the station’s exterior to record the strike rate and force of the smallest pieces of orbital debris and micrometeoroids in low Earth orbit to improve prediction models.

Others pilot efforts will soon equip the station with a small centrifuge to vary gravity levels for biology experiments and assess a potential change to the standard cargo bags for deep-space use.

"Logistically, the largest amount of mass that we have to transfer to Mars for humans are the food, clothing – the things you need to survive," Martin said. Engineers are looking to a design change that allows a second function for the bags after they have been emptied: use as acoustic barriers.

"We fully expect to get more projects to the space station with the same amount of resources," Martin said. "Hopefully, we can get the word out to folks outside the NASA community that it’s not really that hard to get things to the space station. It’s not really as expensive and time-consuming as you might imagine if you have something that could benefit from the microgravity environment."