The Significance of NASA’s ISS National Laboratory Report

by Jeff Bingham

On June 1, NASA submitted a report to the Congress entitled “NASA Report to Congress Regarding a Plan for the International Space Station National Laboratory.” With a title like that, who could not get excited?Sarcasm aside, a careful reading of the report – and its much more extensive attached documents – coupled with a bit of historical perspective suggests this particular report, however blandly titled, represents the emergence of a sea-change in thinking about the future of the ISS.

It should be noted, of course, that NASA did not volunteer to write the report – it was required by the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, which formally designated the ‘US Segment’ of the ISS as a ‘National Laboratory’ and instructed NASA to provide the Congress with ‘a plan regarding how the national laboratory will be operated.’

The plan was further specified to address a series of specific subject areas, including research planning adjustments, ground operations, management structure options, work-force, and so on. Fortunately, the agency turned to one of its senior people to craft the report who truly ‘gets it’ with regard to the National Laboratory concept – and the utilization of the ISS in general.

For those who may have been hoping to see a bricks-and-mortar kind of ‘architecture’ with plans for a logo, banner signs for buildings, a schedule of payloads, launches, and budget projections, the report will be a severe disappointment. However, such a detailed plan was certainly not the expectation of those who drafted the legislation requiring it.

To fully appreciate the significance of this report, it is important to first ask what, immediately prior to its release, was the ‘official’ NASA position vis-a-vis space station utilization?

Briefly, as stated in the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), it was to complete the assembly in a way that meets our international commitments, rescope the onboard and ground-based research towards studies needed to support long-duration spaceflight and the needs for exploration – oh, and grudgingly comply with the congressional mandate that 15 percent of the station research be non-exploration-related (a measly $17 million/year, on average) – and plan for continued operations on that basis through its previously-expected life-cycle, ending in 2016. That is pretty much about all there is and has been since January 14, 2004.

As for gaining access to it, once completed, the answer was (and still is) to purchase Soyuz and Progress services from the Russians (only currently a legal option through 2011, due to the constraints of the Iran Nonproliferation Act), hope for the success of the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program to help develop a US-based commercial service option, and yes, as a side-bar we’ll design the Ares/Orion exploration vehicles so that they ‘could’ also make runs to and from ISS (though no sooner than 2013 in the very best current scenario).

As the report points out clearly, therein lies the ‘rub’ in the eventual successful utilization of the ISS. But that is nothing new, and is true irrespective of the National Laboratory designation. That is an issue for another paper, but one of the ‘spinof’ benefits of the Laboratory designation is to both underscore the reason that resolving that issue is crucial and to provide additional incentive for the US government (not just NASA) and its potential commercial partners to do so.

So what is new in this report that suggests it is more significant than it may first appear?

  1. A renewed effort to identify potential end-users in the context of a new operating concept. All of a sudden, once again, there is a place for people to go – a National Laboratory-focused Project Office within the Space Operations Mission Directorate – to engage in conversations about potential ISS research, a door which has been virtually closed for the past three years.
  2. NASA viewing itself as a ‘steward’ of a national asset. Recognition that the ISS is not a NASA Space Station. It is one they are building and operating for the nation (in cooperation with sixteen other nations) and therefore something that all sectors of the nation can consider as a potential venue for scientific operations, just as many do with the national laboratories operated by the Department of Energy.

  3. Active solicitation and cooperative agreements in work with other government agencies to coordinate development – and funding – for ISS-focused research activity. This comes at a time when several of those very agencies, namely the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science of the Department of Energy, are on the verge of an expansion of their mission and resources as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative.

    Legislation is currently under active consideration by the Congress that would expand those resources even more rapidly than had been originally intended by the Administration, and would also include NASA and NOAA as active participants, with new authorities to be added in subsequent authorizing legislation for those two agencies over the next year.

  4. Directly – and immediately – implementing a program of educational utilization of the space station as a major contribution to resolving the ‘national crisis’ in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. The attachments to the report provide specific examples of the kinds of educational activities already in use with ISS.

    The attachment entitled ‘National Laboratory Education Concept Development Report’ provides a comprehensive and exciting summary of the expanded educational potential of the ISS which, in the author’s view, is sufficient justification all by itself for maximum utilization of the ISS for as long as humanly possible.

  5. Statement of the possibility of using heretofore ‘demanifested’ hardware and facilities – again assuming transportation can be made available – to be launched to ISS and put to use.

    Depending on the transportation systems and resources to become available, this could mean such experiments currently in ‘limbo’ as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the Centrifuge Accommodation Module (CAM), or the X-Ray-based autonomonous Navigation (XNAV) experiment could find renewed possibilities for deployment – and preserving billions of dollars in otherwise ‘wasted’ investment if they were to left on the ground.

  6. Stating as an actual objective the use of the four-year period after completion in 2010 to 2014 as a period of time to demonstrate the value of a Service Life Extension of the ISS – beyond 2016! When have you EVER heard anyone at NASA seriously talk about an extension of the ISS lifetime? To be sure, it doesn’t promise such a thing will happen, but it establishes the basis for considering such a decision at the appropriate time.

    These are just some of the more obvious changes reflected in this document that mark its significance. Others will become more apparent as the efforts initiated by this report move forward.

    To those familiar with the relatively recent history of NASA space station planning it will be obvious that a number of these represent a ‘restoration’ of activities that were previously on NASA’s ‘plate’ but had to be discarded or postponed indefinitely in the face of constrained budgets and the priority of ‘exploration requirements.’

There should be no misunderstanding on this point. This report does not represent a ‘reburdening’ of NASA with these activities. Indeed, a core purpose of the initial National Laboratory designation was to enable NASA to continue its currently planned use of the ISS for its purposes – as a key ‘anchor tenant/resident manager’ of the ISS, and continue to move forward with its priority implementation of the VSE.

The Laboratory is intended to provide the organizational ‘vehicle’ and means by which non-NASA resources and interests can be brought to bear on ISS research operations.

The United States will have invested close to $100 billion dollars in designing, building, assembling and operating the ISS by the time the year 2016 rolls around. Its partners will also have invested tens of billions in combined resources for the ISS.

Until this report was issued, there was a better than even chance that the return on that investment would not have an opportunity to be fully realized. If the ‘sea-change’ in the ISS operational concept represented by this report is fully implemented, the odds are exponentially increased that those investments will be recouped.

Jeff M. Bingham, Senior Adviser on Space and Aeronautics, Republican Staff Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate. This article represents my personal views and is not an official document representing the views of the Committee, its membership, or the U.S. Senate.

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