The way Duane Ratliff sees it, NASA and the nonprofit agency it hired to manage the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the international space station (ISS) have just a few years to prove the value of the taxpayers’ $100 billion investment in the orbital outpost for funding to be continued beyond 2020.

“The ISS really does have a tremendous amount of capability and it really needs to be utilized,” said Ratliff, director of operations for the Florida-based Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

Ratliff currently has 35 projects in the pipeline from a mix of traditional aerospace companies, newcomers from biotechnology and other industries, and research institutes that want to fly experiments and technology demonstrations aboard the station. CASIS also is vetting a few proposals from firms that want to fly products primarily for advertising and marketing purposes, a gray area yet to be vetted by NASA.

CASIS had a rough start after being selected by NASA last summer, losing its executive director over a public spat involving a consultancy. CASIS is operating under an interim executive director and a temporary board of directors, a situation that Ratliff expects to be resolved this month. Also on the horizon: the first solicitation for CASIS-sponsored station research experiments.

Ratliff made the case for CASIS during an informal briefing in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in June at a meeting of the Florida Space Coast chapter of the National Space Society. He later spoke with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz.


What do you see as the role of CASIS?

Our charter is to utilize the ISS to the maximum extent. CASIS has a 10-year cooperative agreement with NASA. Each year, NASA provides $15 million in seed money. We’re required to use $3 million toward formal grant opportunities and the rest is allocated however necessary, and does cover operational costs.

As a private company we can generate funds outside of what NASA sets aside for us. We can create memberships and receive philanthropic donations, commercial sponsorships, marketing and advertising. CASIS’s mission is to take the money that we generate and put it toward research and ISS utilization.

How is CASIS organized and how does it operate?

We started last year, but it wasn’t until about Jan. 1 that we had many boots on the ground. We were eight to 12 employees through the end of 2011; now we’re up to 30, with an additional dozen consultants.

Operations is what I’m in charge of, but we don’t turn bolts or build things. We outsource to commercial companies that have the expertise. NASA still manages the transportation and they still manage the ISS, so at some point we interface with them and we still have to meet their requirements. We can get our science to the door but we have to follow NASA’s rules and meet all the certification requirements to be allowed inside.

What areas of research have the most promise to pay off commercially?

There are some promising areas within life sciences. A very short exposure in low Earth orbit can exacerbate symptoms that are similar to osteoporosis, muscle wasting diseases — things that typically take years of chronic exposure here on Earth to occur. That in itself provides a wonderful model for the pharmaceutical industry, which may be working at creating drugs, vaccines or mitigations for these aging diseases.

Studies that can take years on the ground can be shortened to a matter of days on orbit with an in vivo mouse model. It’s a research pathway that’s incredibly valuable to a multibillion-dollar industry.

Another area is protein crystallization, which is very important to the medical, biotech and pharmaceutical industries. We want to focus on companies like Novartis and Merck, find out their protein of interest and start to provide a mechanism to fly experiments on a regular basis. The idea is not to mass produce crystals on orbit. It’s to understand the three-dimensional characteristics so you can develop the right drugs on the ground.

How are you going to facilitate this?

First, by sponsoring research. Our first formal solicitation goes out this month. It’s going to be focused on protein crystallization. A second one that will come out shortly will focus on material science. Our third solicitation will be within the area of life sciences.

The second major effort is our ability to network, market and receive opportunities in an unsolicited fashion. A company can come to us and say, “We’re interested in doing this. What would it take to get there?”

How much of the ISS does CASIS have access to?

Under law, 50 percent of the U.S. allocation of the ISS is ours to use for our clients. We negotiate what’s available with respect to total power, total data, capture and delivery and mass, and we basically make sure that we can fit within our allocation. There are really no constraints on any one project.

One of our challenges is the launch vehicles and what they are capable of providing. The success of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was a big relief for us because it is the only vehicle at this point that can provide a powered upmass capability. Yet we’re competing with NASA for that powered slot because they fly a lot of refrigeration and they need that.

What about non-U.S. companies flying on the station?

Right now, we don’t have the ability to support them as the U.S. National Lab manager, but foreign entities still have an opportunity through the international partners to be able to utilize their pathways to station. What’s been interesting is that there are foreign companies with U.S. ties, subsidiaries or relationships and so we have done litmus tests to see if we can support the U.S.-side of the company. We’re discussing with NASA what would be acceptable.

Is CASIS looking ahead to when a company wants to fly its own researchers to ISS?

We’re not currently developing a program that would provide for that. I think there would need to be a huge congressional push to make NASA go that route.

If someone were to come forward with a plan for conducting science on the ISS with their own scientist, that would be NASA’s decision to make.

So CASIS would not be involved in that?

This is just my opinion, but we could be involved in that. I would have every interest in supporting that effort, but at the end of the day NASA is still the governmental manager of the ISS and they would have to make that decision.

You could understand why someone would have a significant reason for wanting to fly their own people to protect the intellectual property they may generate as a result of flying their experiments. It’s an interesting challenge and I’m waiting for someone to step up and say, “This is what I want to do.”

We are working agreements with Virgin Galactic to utilize their vehicles to do suborbital testing of experiments as a steppingstone to ISS flights. We also have a partnership with a high-altitude balloon firm in Oregon called NearSpace.

There has been some talk in Congress about taking away management of the station from CASIS. What do you think about that?

ISS is really only guaranteed through 2020. But anyone you talk to at NASA who has to justify to Congress why they need to continue to fly station will tell you that you need a success within the next few years or it’s gone. To stop the progress that has been made and have someone start from scratch would eat up that much more time against that very small window of opportunity.

Obviously I have some bias, but what we have done in a very short amount of time, against tremendous political constraint, is extraordinary. We already have our first funded project that will fly in December and we have some that could go up with the next crew so we’re already flying research. Is it high throughput right now? No, but this is really the test and the demonstration of the ability because while we have our own challenges with respect to funding, capability, etc., we also internally had challenges with NASA to allow us to start flying our projects. It’s been met with some resistance.

Why is that?

This is a culture shock — not to everyone, but to a lot of people within NASA. A few years ago, if someone were to ask me, I would have thought there’s no way a nongovernment agency could take on this role. There are a lot of folks who believe that by putting national laboratory management in place outside of NASA, NASA really lost a lot of power. But they publicly stated that they didn’t have use for the entire station.

We have the flexibility to generate opportunities that NASA and any other government agency would never have. Our ability to raise private capital is something that they could never do, and that’s what is going to be necessary in order to get that high throughput. In any industry, the more throughput you have, the more you’re driving the costs down.

Whether or not we find a cure for cancer as a result of flying ISS, I don’t know, but I hope that that’s not the metric that everyone uses to make their decision about whether it was a success or not.