CAPE CANAVERALl, Fla. — After a rough start, the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), selected last year to manage and commercialize non-NASA U.S. projects conducted aboard the international space station, plans to unveil the hub of a far-reaching initiative to match would-be researchers with funding sources and business support, managers of the Florida-based agency said.

CASIS intends to build an online community seeded by ongoing, closed-door meetings with selected companies and organizations not traditionally affiliated with aerospace but whose focuses dovetail with research already under way aboard the orbiting outpost, such as biotechnology.

Part of the new CASIS website, expected to launch in the next few weeks, will be what CASIS spokesman Bobby Block describes as a “Facebook with a searchable database.”

“You can almost look at it like a social networking aspect, where everybody is tied together, everybody is able to move information back and forth,” Jim Royston, CASIS interim executive director, told Space News. “What we want to make sure is that this is an integrated tool set that we’re developing that really allows all these pieces to connect together.

“We’re not making money on this. We’re there to make all these other people successful and get this emerging market up and running.”

CASIS has spent $60,000 to develop the software to support its virtual marketplace, Block said.

CASIS’s strategy is to focus on the lowest-hanging fruit on the sizeable tree of space research investments made over the past 10 years by identifying initiatives that overlap with emerging markets on Earth and nurturing selected projects with outside investment, marketing and other business services, including transportation and use of facilities aboard the space station.

“Fundamentally it’s an innovation exchange, a marketplace where something that shows promise in the market we will be able to connect to the kinds of investors who may have an interest in that kind of a pursuit,” said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, the state-backed space business development agency that created CASIS to compete for the NASA contract to operate the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the international space station.

Since NASA’s space station research focus to date has been dominated by life science experiments, CASIS’ first commercialization efforts will be related to osteoporosis, muscle wasting, immune system function and protein crystallization, Royston announced April 17 at the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

An initial solicitation for CASIS-backed research projects will be released in June using $3 million of the agency’s $15 million NASA funding. CASIS, which also is open to unsolicited proposals, intends to add outside investment to that pool of funds as they become available.

CASIS won NASA’s nod to manage the orbital national laboratory in July 2011 but had a slow start, in part due to a bitter management dispute with director Jeanne Becker, who resigned Feb. 29 in protest over CASIS’ relationship with the ProOrbis consulting group.

“We obviously have paid close attention to the goings-on at CASIS and have challenged CASIS to demonstrate to us how they can honor the commitments made in the cooperative agreement that we’ve established with them,” NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati told Space News during a conference call with reporters April 18.

“Most of you who followed it are well aware of the hiccups and difficulties coming out the gate, but I believe that we have those in hand and we’re starting to see tangible progress,” Abdalati said.

In response to a March 21 letter from Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, DiBello outlined what progress has been made on the key goals of building up the marketplace for international space station research, citing an analysis of 132 ongoing experiments and the establishment of an “initial capital marketplace to provide an access point for potential research funding and investment.”

In an interview with Space News, DiBello and Royston declined to name specific companies or organizations that are being wooed or how much money has been committed to date.

About half of the U.S.-owned and shared portions of the space station — including transportation services — are available to researchers outside of NASA projects.

“The thing that keeps all of us up at night is that every day is one less day that we’re going to have onboard, so we’re really focused on trying to get things moving quick,” Royston said.



Clarification: The “virtual marketplace” portion of the CASIS website will be launching later this summer, according to CASIS spokesman Bobby Block.