New Crew Arrives at ISS as House Committee Starts Review of CASIS

New Crew Arrives at ISS as House Committee Starts Review of CASIS

A new three-person crew arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this morning after a flawless launch.  Just as the docking clamps were closing, the Democratic leadership of the House committee that oversees NASA released a statement vowing a close review of a just-released independent report on CASIS, the non-profit that manages utilization of the U.S. portion of the ISS for non-NASA users.  The report was strongly critical not only of CASIS itself, but NASA’s oversight of the cooperative agreement between the two.

NASA’s Chris Cassidy and two Russian colleagues, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:05 am ET this morning aboard Soyuz MS-16. They docked with the ISS six hours later at 10:13 am ET.

Soyuz MS-16 enroute to orbit after 4:05 am ET liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Screengrab from NASA TV

During the next week, the three current ISS crew members — NASA’s Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir and Russia’s Oleg Skripochka — will hand over operations to the new crew and then return to Earth on April 17.

The ISS typically is permanently staffed by a crew of six, but until new U.S. commercial crew transportation systems begin flying, the crew size will be limited to three.  The U.S. systems were supposed to be ready by now so Russia cut back production of its Soyuz spacecraft, the only way to get back and forth since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  With only two Soyuz flights per year instead of four, fewer people can be transported.

One impact of the reduced crew size is that less scientific research can be conducted.  The ISS needs a lot of tender loving care by its inhabitants, consuming basically all of the work time available with just three aboard.

Scientific research is one of the primary reasons ISS was built. The 2005 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 109-155) designated the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) as the ISS National Laboratory (ISSNL) with the goal of attracting users other than NASA.  The 2008 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 110-442) provided more direction, including requiring establishment of an ISS National Laboratory Advisory Committee (INLAC) of ISSNL users to monitor, assess and make recommendations annually to the NASA Administrator on “effective utilization” of the ISS. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) further directed NASA to enter into a cooperative agreement with and provide initial financial assistance to a non-profit entity to manage the ISSNL. The law guaranteed 50 percent of the U.S. research capability and crew time would be made available to the ISSNL for its users in other government agencies, industry and academia.

In 2011, NASA selected the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage the ISSNL.  The 10-year agreement for $136 million was extended in 2017 to run through 2024 at a total cost of $196 million.

The International Space Station (October 4, 2018). Credit: NASA

CASIS has been criticized for many years for poor management.  In 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine established an Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Elizabeth (Betsy) Cantwell to conduct an outside review.  Cantwell is currently Senior Vice President, Research and Innovation, University of Arizona, but spent much of her career at several U.S. national laboratories including Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos.  She co-chaired the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s 2011 Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space.

The IRT report was highly critical of CASIS’s performance and NASA’s management of the cooperative agreement (CA), finding the arrangement inflexible and unable to change with the times.  It concluded the CA never “fully met the intent” of the authorization legislation and did not embody the flexibility needed to evolve along with the ISS.

While the CA mechanism can be used in a very flexible manner, it appears that NASA has increasingly revised the CA with CASIS to become less flexible, more prescriptive, and more demanding. Therefore, the CA with CASIS has not optimized a balance between scientific research and commercialization, and the relationship between NASA-funding scientific research and the ISSNL has not been cooperative. Both this lack of flexibility and the ill-defined mission of the ISSNL have harmed NASA and CASIS, resulting in unprofessional behavior on the part of NASA, and un-business like behavior on the part of CASIS. This was the result of long-standing neglect of the proper approaches needed by CASIS to run a viable 501(c)(3), and by NASA as the Federal agency providing sole funding to this entity to oversee and manage the relationship…. — Independent Review Team

The IRT recommended that a “normal business structure” be “imposed or otherwise adopted immediately” because the ISSNL resource “is too important and time-constrained to hold hostage to poor operational management.”

In its response to the IRT, NASA agreed that a “new operating model” is required and listed six actions it and CASIS will take. They include reexamining and adjusting the roles of the CASIS board and leadership and establishing a Users Advisory Committee to provide the user input once envisioned for the INLAC.

House SS&T Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said today she will closely review the IRT’s report, but its “findings suggest we have more work to do” to ensure the ISSNL is effectively utilized.  Space Subcommittee chair Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK) added: “We face important decisions about the future of the ISS and its research and development activities” and will work to “ensure NASA and the nation have an effective path forward for sustaining low Earth orbit research.”

How to sustain a research base in low Earth orbit is becoming increasingly important.  The ISS will soon celebrate its 20th year of permanent human occupancy.  The ISS partnership — the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency — have agreed to continue operations through 2024,  though efforts are underway to extend that to 2028 or 2030.  Even that is just a decade away.

NASA has no plans to build another government space station in low Earth orbit.  It is trying to encourage private sector companies to build commercial facilities to succeed ISS from which it can lease whatever services it requires.  Last summer it adopted a series of measures to begin a transition from government-owned to privately-owned facilities, but Congress provided only one-tenth of the money NASA requested for that activity ($15 million instead of $150 million) in  FY2020 appropriations.

Demonstrating the existence of a sufficient customer base other than NASA will be key to convincing the private sector to build new facilities, making the work of CASIS all that more important.


Note: This article was updated with Cantwell’s new title at the University of Arizona.

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