Bolden Assures Lawmakers CASIS Will Meet Milestones or Be Replaced

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden offered both support and a warning to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Florida nonprofit his agency picked last year to manage non-NASA science aboard the U.S. side of the international space station.

“It’s going through growing pains but we’re confident it’s going to work,” Bolden said during a March 21 budget hearing, where he sought to reassure the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that CASIS would be able to fulfill its mission of finding, funding and flying new space science experiments, despite the abrupt departure of its executive director at the beginning of March.

“That’s kind of like the captain of the ship leaving,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) the subcommittee’s chairman, said. Wolf said it appeared that NASA’s selection of CASIS “hasn’t worked out very well.

“They need to get with it,” Wolf said. “Or if they’re not with it in 30 to 45 days, we ought to pull [the work from] them and give it to the National Science Foundation or the National Academies or somebody else.”

“I assure you,” Bolden replied, “if they do not meet milestones, we will find another way.”

Last year, CASIS won a competition to manage non-NASA utilization of the space station — a task for which the group will receive $15 million a year in federal funding.

Bolden said that as CASIS grapples with the challenges of starting up and recovering from the loss of its top executive, NASA was exercising careful oversight over the fledgling nonprofit.

“I am not defending anything,” Bolden said. “They are just like any other contractor and … they have milestones that they have to meet.” NASA, Bolden said, recently sent CASIS a “letter to remind them of the milestones.”

CASIS spokesman Bobby Block said the organization has been told to respond to the NASA letter by early April and describe a plan for meeting its agreed-upon milestones with the agency.

“No one is more aware of the importance of the utilization of station to the future of our national spaceflight program than the people working at CASIS,” Block told Space News March 22. “It is a mistake to assume that right now because you’re not hearing much from us that we’re not doing anything.”

Congress designated the U.S. side of the international space station a national laboratory in 2005, and in 2010 enacted legislation ordering NASA to find a nonprofit that could promote the use of that lab by scientists and researchers in industry, academia, and branches of the government besides NASA.

CASIS was selected for the job last July and began staffing up in September. By the end of February, the group’s executive director stepped down amid a management dispute.

In her Feb. 29 resignation letter, Jeanne Becker, a veteran research scientist, said she was leaving CASIS over concerns about partnering with ProOrbis, the Malvern, Pa., consulting group NASA hired in 2010 to develop a management concept for opening the space station to non-NASA research. ProOrbis  later teamed with Boeing and Space Florida on the CASIS proposal and has been working since then on securing a role overseeing the new organization.

Becker, in her letter, said she had been advised by lawyers that working so closely with ProOrbis jeopardized CASIS’s nonprofit status.

CASIS interim director Jim Royston told Space News in mid-March that the organization was “doing everything we can to make sure there’s nothing there that would jeopardize that nonprofit status.”