NASA Open to ISS Use by Industry, U.S.

NASA isready and willing to share the international space station (ISS) with otherU.S. government agencies and commercial firms once construction of the $100billion orbital outpost is finished in 2010.

That is themain thrust of a 14-page report NASA sent to Congress in late May outlining aplan for operating the U.S. segment of ISS as a ?national laboratory? supportedand used by entities other than NASA.

Congressofficially designated the U.S. side of the space station a national lab over ayear ago with passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. The bill directedNASA to seek new users for the space station and come back within a year with aplan describing how the national lab would be operated.

While NASAmissed that deadline by five months, the finished report was nonetheless warmlywelcomed by the primary lawmaker behind the ISS-as-national-lab drive, Sen. KayBailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

?I am verypleased with the work NASA has completed in preparing this report andimplementation plan for operating the international space station as a NationalLaboratory,? Hutchison said in a June 1 press release. ?We now have a firmfoundation on which to plan for the full and complete use of the space stationas it was always intended.?

NASA saysin the report that the agency would serve as ?stewards of this new nationallaboratory asset? covering the annual cost of maintaining and operating the ISS?as long as the benefits to the nation are justifiable and the agency?s ISSoperations? budget is reduced to permit both exploration and ISS operations.?

NASA saysit could foresee letting a nonprofit or some other type of nongovernment entityeventually manage commercial use of the station, but would continue to serve as?the executive agent for other government uses of the ISS.?

JeffBingham, a senior adviser to Hutchison on space matters, said the report?represents the emergence of a sea-change in thinking about the future of theISS.?

Prior tothe report, Bingham wrote in a June 3 column for that NASAhad no clear commitment to the space station beyond 2016 and planned to use itsolely for research useful to space exploration.

Now,Bingham said, NASA has promised to find out by 2014 what it would take to keepthe station up and running beyond its 2016 certified design life and isreporting progress lining up other users.

Still, NASAmakes clear that its primary interest in ISS is research that helps expand theboundaries of human space exploration, not solving problems back on Earth. Thereport emphasizes that NASA remains ?resolute in its plan to employ the ISS,and other spacecraft as they become available, to advance research on humanphysiology, in order to enable the long duration human space flight missions ofthe future.?

JohnLogsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington Universityand a member of the NASA Advisory Council, said June 6 that designating the ISSa national lab shows that the United States remains interested in getting areturn on its space station investment.

?NASA,working with the NASA Advisory Council, is discussing with other governmentusers the research they might perform aboard the ISS. Having the ISS designatedby the Congress as a national laboratory is intended to support suchutilization efforts,? Logsdon wrote in a June 6 e-mail. ?So while thedesignation might be more symbolic than representing a major change, it doessignal a desire to foster as widespread as possible utilization of this veryexpensive facility.?

The slenderreport was produced by Mark Uhran, a NASA assistant associate administrator whohas long been involved in the agency?s efforts to attract commercial users tothe space station.

A NASA spokesmansaid neither Uhran or other officials were free to discuss the report untilCongress had a chance to review it and comment.

?All we canreally say for now is last week we sent Congress a plan describing how the U.S.segment of the international space station could be used as a nationallaboratory,? NASA spokesman Allard Beutel wrote in a June 4 e-mail. ?The reportdetails how the national lab could be operated, potential participation ofother parties, and a potential timeline for implementation.?

?The ideais that following the station?s completion in 2010, NASA would still use it forresearch that supports missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond,? Beutelcontinued. ?But since the station was originally designed to accommodatemultiple, concurrent missions, NASA would seek partnerships with othergovernment agencies and commercial companies to use the U.S. segment of thestation to pursue research that isn?t directly applicable to the NASA mission.?

Beutelwould not release the report, but an electronic copy of it was posted and elsewhere.

In thereport, NASA says ?initial encounters with U.S. government agencies have beenpositive relative to their potential use of the ISS,? adding that there is?firm interest? from several agencies in using the station for ?education,human health related research and defense sciences research.?

While nospecific new projects are mentioned, NASA says in the report that a December2006 workshop it held with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) toidentify ways to collaborate on space-related health research produced anagreement to draft a memorandum of understanding ?that will provide theframework for NIH to encourage use of the ISS as a national laboratory forresearch in related space and terrestrial physiology such as bone, muscle andimmunology.?

Inaddition, the report notes, NASA continues to make the ISS available to theU.S. Defense Department?s Space Test Program, which has used the space station
and other NASA spacecraft over the years to fly experimental payloads.

The reportalso notes private sector interest in using the space station, but says anysuch use would be kept in check by the continuing high cost of accessing thestation and the perceived investment risk of business plans involving afacility that is still not fully assembled.

NASA saysit hopes its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which isspending $500 million to foster cheaper transport options for the ISS, willhelp address the first concern and that time and continued progress buildingout the station will address the second concern.

One companythat appears undaunted by the investment risk is Spacehab, a Houston-basedcommercial space company that has been struggling amid a reduced space shuttleflight rate and cut backs on NASA-funded space station research. The companyannounced this spring it intends to turn its financial picture around bypursuing space-based research and manufacturing opportunities.

Spacehabapplauded the report. ?This is one of the most exciting and welcomeannouncements NASA could have made at this time,? Thomas B. Pickens, Spacehab?spresident and chief executive officer, said in a June 6 statement. ?As the ISSis nearing completion, NASA?s leadership is staying true to the original visionto provide a platform in space for public-private partnerships to promote majoradvancements, enhancing and even saving lives here on Earth.?

Otherhighlights of the report include:

  • NASA?s pledge to establish? a small project office within the Space Operations Mission Directorate to work with other U.S. government agencies and the private sector? interested in using ISS.
  • NASA?s willingness to make available ISS flight hardware that s either already on orbit or has been built and is either awaiting flight or not expected to fly due to budget cut backs.
  • Using the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program as a model, ?NASA hopes to pursue an analogous opportunity for commercial water production services on the ISS utilizing? a close-loop life support system. NASA issued a ?sources sought? announcement for such a system in January.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.