NASA faces serious challenges keeping the International Space Station relevant

GAO says NASA and the ISS face crew transportation, scientific experiment development challenges

The International Space Station might be a case of "if you build it they may not come" according to a government watchdog report out this week.  The report states that the space agency has done a credible job of helping build the ISS (with a $50 billion investment) to last for years to come, but adds that there's a serious question as to whether or not it will be able to service the station and productively use it for science.

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That was the conclusion of the Government Accountability Office report that found NASA and the ISS program face three major challenges: NASA must be able to transport cargo and crew to and from the ISS;  NASA must ensure that the management of the ISS national laboratory results in effective utilization of the station for its primary purpose-scientific research; and the space agency must ensure that replaceable spare parts are available and that the ISS is structurally sound and can safely continue operations.

A further look at the three challenges outlined in the report:

ISS Transport:

The greatest challenge facing NASA is transporting cargo and crew to and from the ISS to make effective use of the ISS. NASA plans to rely on ISS international partner and new commercial launch vehicles to transport cargo and crew to and from the ISS until at least 2020. NASA hopes to begin using new commercial cargo vehicles in 2012 and crew vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the ISS beginning in 2017. NASA's decision to rely on the new commercial vehicles is inherently risky because the vehicles are still in development and not yet proven or fully operational, the GAO stated.

"NASA is relying on 51 flights of international partner and commercial vehicles to transport cargo to the ISS from 2012 through 2020, but agreements for international flights after 2016 are not in place and the commercial vehicles are unproven. NASA has agreements in place with the European and Japanese space consortiums for their respective vehicles-the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV)-to conduct cargo resupply missions beginning in 2012 through 2016. The ATV and HTV are unmanned vehicles that have flown to the ISS, and carry such items as hardware and water.  NASA also plans to use two types of domestic commercial launch vehicles to maintain ISS from 2012 through 2020. Development of these vehicles-the Falcon 9 and Antares NASA's current plans anticipate employing a total of 12 international partner launches-8 from 2012 to 2016 and 4 from 2017 through 2020. NASA does not have agreements in place for international partners to provide cargo services to the ISS beyond 2016. NASA plans to use the ATV for a number of cargo flights through 2014, but no longer anticipates its use after that time. NASA plans to use HTV for a number of cargo flights through 2016, but its negotiations with the Japanese partners for flights beyond 2016 are in their infancy," the GAO stated.

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Not surprisingly commercial vehicles are essential to sustaining and utilizing the ISS.  SpaceX and Orbital are scheduled to fly 20 (71%) of the 28 launches NASA plans through 2016 and follow-on commercial resupply vehicles are expected to fly 19 (83%) of the 23 launches from 2017 through 2020.-was fostered under a NASA-initiated effort known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. These vehicles are being developed by private industry corporations-Falcon 9 by SpaceX and Antares by Orbital Sciences Corporation. In late 2008, NASA awarded contracts to both companies to provide cargo transport services to the ISS. Only SpaceX will be able to safely return significant amounts of cargo to earth, such as the results of scientific experiments. NASA anticipates that SpaceX will begin providing that capability in 2012, the GAO stated.

In addition, NASA faces two major challenges in transporting crew to the ISS-adjusting its acquisition strategy for crew vehicles to match available funding and deciding if and when to purchase crew seats on the Russian Soyuz in case domestic commercial crew vehicles are not available as planned in 2017.

Also problematic, NASA's funding level for fiscal year 2012 is almost 50% less than it anticipated when it developed its approach for procuring commercial crew services. Given this funding level, NASA indicated it could not award contracts to multiple providers, which weakened prospects for competition in subsequent phases of the program, the GAO stated

ISS Science:

NASA's greatest challenge to utilizing the ISS for its intended purpose-scientific research-is inextricably linked with the agency's ability to carry scientific experiments and payloads to and from the ISS. International partner vehicles have much less cargo capacity than the space shuttle did to carry supplies to the ISS and no ability to return research payloads back to earth. The Russian Soyuz vehicle has some ability to transport research payloads back to earth, but the capability is minimal at only 132 pounds. SpaceX, however, will provide NASA with the capability to transport research payloads back to earth. Consequently, if the new commercial launch vehicles are not available as planned, the impact on ISS utilization could be dramatic. In the past, NASA officials have told us that the impact of failures or significant delays in developing the commercial cargo capability would be similar to the post-Columbia shuttle disaster scenario, the GAO started.

NASA projects that it will utilize approximately 50% of the U.S. ISS research facilities for its own research. The GAO stated though that NASA's scientific utilization of the ISS is constrained by limited crew time. Limiting factors include the size of the crew on board the station; the necessary division of crew work among many activities that include maintenance, operations, and research; and the need to share research facilities with international partners.

Still, there is currently no direct analogue to the ISS National Laboratory, and though NASA currently manages research programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its other centers that it believes possess similar characteristics to other national laboratories, NASA has limited experience managing the type of diverse scientific research and technology demonstration portfolio that the ISS could eventually represent, the GAO stated.

NASA selected a group in 2011 to centrally oversee ISS research decision-making. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), is charged with developing and managing a varied research and development portfolio based on U.S. national needs for basic and applied research; establishing a marketplace to facilitate matching research pathways with qualified funding sources; and stimulating interest in using the national lab for research and technology demonstrations and as a platform for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. CASIS has begun outreach efforts and has issued a Request for Information due back in March 2012 that seeks to identify and gather information from entities capable of serving as implementation partners. Since the establishment of CASIS as the management body of ISS research is relatively recent, the GAO said it had not examined its effectiveness in ensuring full scientific utilization of the station as a national laboratory.

ISS parts:

In what could be called the only good news out of the GAO report, the watchdogs stated: "NASA has an appropriate and reasonable approach in place to determine the spares needed for the ISS as well as to assess ISS structural health and safety. Estimating ISS spares and gauging the structural health and safety of the ISS are not simple challenges. Among the many factors to be assessed are the reliability of key components, NASA's ability to deliver spares to the ISS, the projected life of structures that cannot be replaced, and in-depth analysis of those components and systems that affect safety. While some empirical data exist, because the ISS is a unique facility in space, assessing its extended life necessarily requires the use of sophisticated analytical techniques and judgments."

NASA is also using reasonable analytical tools to assess structural health and determine whether ISS hardware can operate safely through 2020. NASA currently anticipates that-with some mitigation-the ISS will remain structurally sound for continued operations through 2020. NASA also is using reasonable methodologies to identify replacement units and other hardware that could cause serious damage to the ISS if they were to fail. Through 2015, NASA plans to develop methods to mitigate issues, the GAO stated.

What do you think NASA should do with the ISS?

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