ISS Crew Struggling to Find Time to do Research

ISS Crew Struggling to Find Time to do Research

The International Space Station (ISS) is a research laboratory in space, but ISS crews continue to struggle to find time to do that research amidst spacewalks, spacecraft arrivals and departures, and other operational tasks.  At the same time, researchers need to know how long the ISS will be available — only through 2020 or later.  

Those were two of the messages from ISS program manager Mike Suffredini and NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier during a two-day meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee.  Suffredini spoke yesterday.  Gerstenmaier briefed the committee this morning.

Suffredini pointed out that ISS operations require 15-17 flights per year and “then sprinkle in EVAs, it’s hard to find time to do research.”   EVA refers to extravehicular activity, or spacewalks.  NASA has a goal of performing 35 hours of research per week, but the current average is 26.13 hours.  He is trying to find ways to “buy back crew time” and looking forward to the era of commercial crew when the typical ISS crew complement will be seven instead of six.

Today, the crew size varies between three and six depending on Soyuz launch schedules.  Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way to transport crews back and forth now that the U.S. space shuttle program is over.  Astronauts and cosmonauts remain in space for about six months and then are replaced by new crewmembers.  The plan has been for three ISS crew to return to Earth, leaving three on the ISS, and about two weeks later, three new crewmembers launch, restoring the crew size to six.   Thus, the periods of time when the facility is staffed by only three people are relatively brief.    Delays in Soyuz launches in the past year extended those periods, however, reducing the number of hours that can be devoted to research. 

EVAs also eat into crew time.   This fall, two unplanned EVAs were needed.  One was to complete a planned EVA that ran into problems when a recalcitrant bolt would not slide into place.  Another was needed to repair an ammonia leak in one of the radiators.

Suffredini showed a chart illustrating that the weekly average of 26.13 hours of research per week he mentioned is actual and projected time during the period September 2012 to March 2013.   The types of research conducted by the ISS partners — the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada — span the fields of biology and biotechnology, earth and space science, educational activities, human research, physical science, and technology.

Gerstenmaier expanded on the research being conducted on ISS and the need for NASA to get the word out that it is “starting to become a productive research facility” and encourage researchers to publish their results.  In response to a question, he confirmed that NASA is offering free launches, free power and free crew time to researchers, something that apparently is not well known. He agreed with Suffredini, however, that crew time is a major concern.  One of Gerstenmaier’s slides states that:

  • “Scheduled crew time oversubscribed (>100%),
  • “Crew as human subjects oversubscribed (multi-year queue carefully managed by HRP, a big issue for our partners, limits CASIS research, and
  • “NASA and CASIS users are soon going to compete for this limited resource unless we are able to expand availability.” 

HRP is the Human Research Program, which is part of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.  CASIS is the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, which manages research on the “U.S. National Laboratory” portion of the ISS. 

Gerstenmaier also said that “real estate” available for research both inside and outside the ISS is filling up more quickly than expected.  His statistics are:

  • “Racks 71% occupied
  • “EXPRESS 60% occupied, expect 80% by the end of 2014
  • “External Sites 35% occupied, expect 75% by end of 2014
  • “Best external sites (best viewing with good Nadir or Zentith [sic] views) are mostly claimed though 2020.”

One of his messages was that a decision needs to be made sooner rather than later as to how long the ISS will operate because that could affect researchers’ plans.  Currently the international partners have agreed to operate it through 2020, but some discussions have been held about extending that to 2028 — 30 years after the first ISS modules were launched.  Gerstenmaier suggested that instead of looking at a fixed date for ending ISS operations, thought should be given to what criteria should be used to determine the “transition point” — a reference to transitioning to a focus on other exploration programs.   He stressed that ISS is part of the exploration program not separate from it.   He also reassured the committee that a plan already exists for deorbiting the space station whenever the time comes.  The plan was requested by and is being reviewed by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), he said.

A range of other ISS topics were discussed by Suffredini and Gerstenmaier in their briefings.  Among them were investigations into a number of problems that arose during the most recent SpaceX Dragon mission, and, separately, Russia’s use of a new rendezvous profile for its robotic Progress cargo spacecraft that allows them to dock after only 4 orbits instead of two days.   This profile was used successfully for the last two Progress missions and Russia plans to begin using it for crewed Soyuz missions beginning in March 2013.    Suffredini indicated it is a mixed blessing for crews.  Soyuz is a rather cramped spacecraft and not very comfortable to spend two days in waiting to reach the ISS, so four orbits instead of two days is good news.   On the other hand, it makes for a very long day for the crew, “and if you have to stay in your seat bucket, a miserably long day,” he said. 

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