Former Shuttle Pilot Johnson To Lead CASIS

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WASHINGTON — More than a year after its first leader abruptly left the organization, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) announced that former space shuttle pilot Gregory H. Johnson would take over as the Florida-based nonprofit’s executive director, effective Sept. 1.

Johnson, a veteran U.S. Air Force pilot who spent 15 years with NASA, was at the helm for both of his two space shuttle missions, one of which was the final flight of the Endeavour orbiter in 2011. He succeeds research scientist Jeanne Becker, who quit CASIS in March 2012 after only six months on the job. 

CASIS, which manages non-NASA research aboard the international space station, announced Johnson’s hiring Aug. 26, the same day NASA announced he had left the agency.

Since Becker’s departure, CASIS has been run on an interim basis by James Royston, a former NASA research scientist who is also president of aerospace services company L2 Aerospace of Melbourne, Fla., and former president of payload processing company Astrotech Corp. of Titusville, Fla.

Congress in 2010 ordered NASA to outsource management of the space station’s national laboratory component, which was created by a separate act of Congress in 2005. CASIS was selected in 2011 over at least one other proposal put forward by the Ohio-based Space Laboratory Associates, a collaboration between Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. CASIS was created by a team led by Space Florida, that state’s aerospace economic development corporation, with support from Boeing Co., among others. 

Johnson’s hiring marks a significant milestone in CASIS’s reorganization, which began after Becker’s resignation. Since then, CASIS has attracted almost as much notice from skeptical lawmakers as it has from potential researchers. 

In March 2012, before CASIS had awarded a single dollar for space station utilization by the private sector, Becker sent the group’s board of directors a resignation letter, warning that the organization’s business practices were threatening its nonprofit status. By law, the manager of the space station national lab must be a nonprofit. 

CASIS’s board of directors, as well as Space Florida executives who spearheaded the CASIS proposal, denied any wrongdoing. But the dustup got the attention of lawmakers. 

Most of Ohio’s congressional delegation, for example, signed a letter asking NASA to fire CASIS and make Space Laboratory Associates manager of the national lab. In hearings last summer, lawmakers on the House Science Committee called for the Government Accountability Office to investigate CASIS. 

Ultimately, CASIS kept the job and began doling out some of the $15 million it gets from NASA each year to the research and development community. To date, the organization has awarded $5.4 million, about $2 million of which has gone to experiments in protein crystal growth, CASIS spokesman Patrick O’Neil wrote in an Aug. 27 email.

CASIS also awarded $1.5 million to Houston-based NanoRacks, which is constructing an external research platform it plans to install aboard the station in 2014. NanoRacks already brokers space and crew time for non-NASA experiments inside the space station.

Another $300,000 was awarded to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs for its unsolicited proposal to conduct station-based research into anti-cancer therapies, while $200,000 went to the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston to investigate nanofluidics — the behavior of fluids confined to very narrow spaces — in microgravity.

The first CASIS-sponsored payloads bound for the space station are set to launch in late 2013 and early 2014, O’Neil said. CASIS booked three experimental payloads on a scheduled December launch of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft. That ride will only be available if Cygnus’ maiden flight in September is successful. 

CASIS has also booked space for nine payloads aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. cargo delivery mission now scheduled for January, O’Neil said.