Time is running out for nonprofit groups hoping to take charge of non-NASA experiments on the U.S. part of the international space station.

NASA has been seeking proposals from nonprofit organizations interested in managing space station science since December, but the deadline for applicants to notify NASA in writing of their intent to apply is March 4.

The proposals themselves are due April 1. NASA hopes to make a decision by May 31.

“We think we’re going to see a fairly robust competitive field,” Mark Uhran, NASA’s assistant associate administrator for the international space station, told reporters during a Feb. 22 teleconference.

NASA hopes an outside entity will help utilize the station’s full research potential and encourage private industry, universities and other governmental organizations to pursue research on the orbiting laboratory.

Under NASA’s current plan, the space station is slated to continue flying through at least 2020. About 50 percent of the U.S. science facilities on the $100 billion orbiting laboratory will be turned over for non-NASA use, while the other half will be reserved for space agency studies in human biomedical research and spacecraft development. On-orbit assembly of the international space station began in 1998 and is due to be completed this year.

The U.S. portion of the outpost was designated a National Laboratory in 2005 to open its facilities for use by non-NASA researchers. Since then, the station already has hosted outside research projects, but NASA hopes those will pick up once the nonprofit is established.

The plan to turn over management of U.S. external research to an independent nonprofit has been in place since the space station’s early planning stages, Uhran said.

“The vision was that we were building the space station not solely for NASA uses, but also for uses by the nation,” Uhran said. “We’re trying to expand the other uses besides NASA.”

Once the nonprofit is set up, it will review research proposals by universities and companies looking to conduct studies on the station. NASA would cover the costs of launching experiments to space, and would even contribute some crew members’ time to carry out the experiments, if needed.

“We see potential in science, engineering, commercial development,” Uhran said. “I’m very bullish on the productivity potential of the space station, and this is going to be an important step in making sure that productivity is realized.”