Money at heart of International Space Station developing premier research lab chops

NASA Inspector General details challenges the International Space Station as a research lab


There are challenges in its future no doubt, but NASA has made progress using the International Space Station as an advanced research lab according to an audit released this week by the space agency's Inspector General, Paul Martin.

Given its $60 billion construction price tag and almost $3 billion in annual operating costs, it is essential that NASA make a concerted effort to maximize the research capabilities of the ISS, the IG stated.

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The report went on to say that NASA uses three significant data points - all of which have been trending in the right direction -- to assess utilization of ISS research capabilities:

  • Average weekly crew time - Since 2011, NASA has exceeded its goal of spending an average of 35 hours per week on scientific investigations.
  • Number of investigations - For the fiscal year (FY) ending October 2008, NASA performed 62 investigations. Since then, the annual number of investigations has been above 100.
  • Use of allocated space - NASA expects that the utilization rate for space allocated for research purposes will increase in FY 2013 from about 70 to 75% for internal space and from 27 to 40% for external sites.
  • While no one measure provides a complete picture of the utilization rate, NASA has generally increased the level of activity for each metric since completion of ISS assembly in 2011.

There has been criticism in the past about the use - or lack thereof -- of the ISS as a high-tech lab outpost.

The international team that runs the ISS which includes Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia, and the US says has too focused on expanding space-based research. At one time about 150 experiments are ongoing and more than 600 experiments have been conducted since research began about 11 years ago, the group says. These experiments have led to advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells and the development of more capable engines, robotics and materials for use on Earth and in space.

Moving forward though there are many challenges, the NASA report stated.   

Probably the main issue is money in one form or another.  In August 2011, NASA signed a cooperative agreement with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) to manage non-NASA research on the ISS. NASA currently provides $15 million annually to CASIS and the group is expected to raise additional funding through membership fees and donations.  The success of this effort largely hinges on two factors: the ability of CASIS to attract sufficient interest and funding from private users and investors, and the availability of reliable transportation to and from the Station for crew and cargo, NASA stated.

"CASIS's task is particularly challenging given the historic lack of interest from private entities in conducting research aboard the ISS in the absence of government funding. While CASIS's general goals for FY 2013 to award research grants from funds raised through donations and approve more self-funded investigations are positive first steps toward enhancing a market for non-NASA research aboard the ISS, neither CASIS nor NASA have developed specific, quantifiable metrics to measure CASIS's ability to meet these goals," the NASA IG stated.

Maximizing the ISS's research capabilities also depends upon the success of NASA's Commercial Cargo and Crew Programs. The Cargo Program is essential to ensuring the capacity to ferry experiments to and from the Station and the commercial crew vehicles currently under development will make it possible to staff the ISS with a full complement of seven crew members (rather than the current six), thereby increasing the amount of crew time available for research.

"The continued availability of dependable transportation for cargo and crew to the ISS is a key factor in maximizing the research capabilities of the Station. Four cargo vehicles currently support the ISS - Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Dragon, the Russian Progress, the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle. A fifth vehicle, Orbital Sciences Corporation's (Orbital) Cygnus, is expected to begin cargo flights in late 2013.

All but the Progress carry NASA payloads to the Station, but only the Dragon can return experiments and other cargo to Earth. The other vehicles burn up during atmospheric reentry and therefore are suitable only for trash disposal. The Dragon's return capability is critical to maximizing the Station's research capabilities, as many experiments require samples to be brought back to Earth for analysis and examination," the NASA report stated.

After NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, the Russian Soyuz became the only vehicle capable of transporting crew to the ISS. Between 2006 and 2008, NASA purchased one seat per year. Beginning in 2009, NASA started purchasing six seats per year. The price per seat has increased over the years from $22 million in 2006, to $25 million in 2010, to $28 million in the first half of 2011. During the second half of 2011, the price per seat jumped to $43 million.4 The price has continued to increase, NASA said.

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