Editorial: CASIS Controversy Needs a Closer Look

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NASA’s legal experts should take a close look now at the circumstances that led to the resignation of Jeanne K. Becker as executive director of the nonprofit organization responsible for administering commercial research aboard the international space station.

Ms. Becker left the Florida-based Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) March 5 after less than six months on the job. In her Feb. 29 resignation letter, she said the organization’s nonprofit status was being jeopardized by its relationship with ProOrbis, a for-profit consulting firm that drafted the blueprint for managing non-NASA research aboard the station.

ProOrbis helped write CASIS’s winning proposal for the job, which entails, among other things, evaluating commercial candidates for space station research and connecting space scientists with payload integrators and investors. According to Ms. Becker’s resignation letter to Frank DiBello, chairman of the CASIS board, ProOrbis carved out a key managerial role for itself in the nonprofit organization, which stands to receive $15 million annually from the U.S. space agency.

Mr. DiBello is president of Space Florida, the state-sponsored economic development organization that helped establish CASIS last year and helped underwrite its bid to manage the portion of the space station designated as a U.S. national laboratory by an act of Congress. According to Ms. Becker’s letter, ProOrbis is a grant proposal writer for Space Florida.

Ms. Becker’s main concern appears to be that ProOrbis’ open-ended management role in CASIS could compromise the organization’s nonprofit status. She said she previously had threatened to resign if her concerns were not addressed. The letter also cited “onerous political pressures” by congressional staffers, NASA and ProOrbis that forced CASIS into a “defensive posture with constant focus on mitigation strategies to fend off political threats of the elimination of CASIS.”

In an interview, Mr. DiBello acknowledged potential liabilities associated with ProOrbis’ continuing involvement in CASIS, but said there were “longstanding issues that contributed to a crisis in confidence” in Ms. Becker’s leadership. He also said that Ms. Becker, a scientist who has held senior positions at other NASA-funded research institutions, was out of her element in having to deal with multiple agencies, top NASA managers and the financial community.

It seems a bit odd that ProOrbis, after writing, under contract to NASA, a reference model for managing commercial research aboard the station, would then be allowed to support CASIS’s successful bid for the job. And while Ms. Becker’s letter provides no evidence, nor does it even overtly imply, that ProOrbis or Space Florida have done anything improper, clearly there is a difference of opinion about the rules governing nonprofits and how they might apply here.

NASA, whose procurement officials apparently saw no problem with the ProOrbis-CASIS relationship, needs to give this one more review, if only to remove any clouds that otherwise might hang over the national laboratory portion of the space station. It would be unfortunate if lingering concerns about CASIS’s nonprofit status deterred researchers interested in utilizing the station; worse if in fact there is a legal issue that eventually forces the organization to bow out. If it does turn out that NASA has to restart the competition for the rights to manage space station research, it would be better to find that out sooner rather than later, lest more precious time and effort to take full advantage of this huge laboratory asset go to waste.