Uhran: Best is Yet to Come for ISS Unless the Opportunity is Missed

Uhran: Best is Yet to Come for ISS Unless the Opportunity is Missed

With construction of the International Space Station (ISS) complete, the time has come to utilize it as the backbone of a new space economy in low Earth orbit (LEO). That was the key message from Mark Uhran, NASA’s assistant associate administrator for ISS, at a Space Transportation Association luncheon today.

Calling the ISS a “Herculean achievement” so far, Uhran said “the best is yet to come, provided we don’t let opportunity slip through our fingers.”

The necessary next step, he said, is for the government and space industry to stimulate non-aerospace non-governmental demand to make use of the ISS, a piece of infrastructure that has cost U.S. taxpayers alone close to $100 billion. The U.S. cost of ISS to date is $60 billion, and another $20-30 billion will be spent on operations in the next decade, Uhran said. He did not provide an estimate of how much it has cost the other partners in the program: Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency.

“I’ve chosen my words carefully,” he stressed: “Note that the action verb is to stimulate, not to invest. The government can’t afford to invest another $100 billion.”

NASA and the space industry need to “actively stimulate non-government demand by an aggressive and strategically structured plan of action to engage non-aerospace scientific and industrial R&D organizations that are presently unaware of the benefits to be gained through space-based R&D programs,” he continued. R&D is the underpinning of long-term economic growth, according to Uhran, and ISS is “primed” for its R&D role.

NASA will announce later this summer the winner of its competition for a non-profit entity to fill the role of stimulating demand and serving as the nexus between NASA and the non-governmental users. Uhran warned, however, that there is one other “trap door” to be avoided – tensions between different user communities. Scientists, engineers and industrialists are all welcome. “No single interest group should be allowed to politically capture exclusive control of the ISS R&D agenda,” he cautioned.

Selection of the non-profit entity had been expected on May 31, and that date is still displayed on the ISS National Laboratory website as the selection date. Uhran said that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requirement was that it be completed by the end of FY 2011 (September 30, 2011), and while he called the selection “imminent,” he added that it would be made “later this summer upon successful completion of negotiations.”

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