Congress asks for GAO investigation of ISS National Lab

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WASHINGTON — The leadership of the House Science Committee has asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the operations of the portion of the International Space Station designated a national lab, including whether reforms planned by NASA will be effective.

In a May 1 letter, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the chair and ranking member of the full committee, asked the GAO to examine management by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) of the ISS National Lab, or ISSNL. Reps. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas), chair and ranking member of the space subcommittee, also signed the letter.

“We are concerned about CASIS’s ability to fulfill Congress’ vision for the ISSNL and the research possibilities of low Earth orbit,” they wrote in the four-page letter, arguing that “it is imperative to ensure that an effective and accountable entity is in place to manage the full range of activities conducted through the ISSNL.”

NASA’s own concerns about the management of the national lab on the station prompted it to establish an independent review team (IRT) last August. The final report of that review, released April 6, found a variety of issues with the structure and management of the lab, including poor communications between NASA and CASIS.

The members said in their letter that the conclusions of that report were “deeply troubling.” It cited specifically concerns about how CASIS managed ISS resources such as crew time allocated to it, as well as the governance structure for CASIS and a lack of transparency and accountability.

The members asked the GAO to perform “a comprehensive review of CASIS to evaluate whether significant changes to the organization’s mission, management, and governance structure are necessary.” That includes an examination of how CASIS uses ISS resources and selects research as well as its financial management and operations. The members also asked the GAO to examine how NASA’s response to the recommendations of the review address those issues.

“We believe that a broad GAO examination of the organization’s performance and management is necessary to determine the appropriate next steps,” they wrote.

As part of NASA’s response to the report, it announced April 20 that it created a position of program executive for CASIS within the agency that will serve as the single point of contact between the two organizations. Alex MacDonald, chief economist of NASA, will serve as that program executive.

“We’ve had good conversations with CASIS leadership already, and they’re working with us to realize the recommendations of the IRT and implementing the strategy that we’re laying out together,” MacDonald said in a webinar about NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization activities.

CASIS, in an April 23 statement, said it would work with MacDonald to improve management of the national lab. “We recognize that modifications in the current model of the ISS National Lab are necessary for continued success and maximization of the return on investment for the American people,” said Ken Shields, chief operating officer of CASIS.