ISS National Lab Manager To Be Unveiled This Summer

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WASHINGTON — NASA will announce this summer the name of the nonprofit group that will manage non-NASA science at the U.S. national laboratory aboard the international space station (ISS), a senior agency official said June 15.

“NASA has received multiple proposals from a strong and highly competitive field,” said Mark Uhran, NASA assistant associate administrator for the international space station. He said an announcement would be made “later this summer.”

Uhran, who spoke at a luncheon held here by the Space Transportation Association, said the competitive phase of the project has not yet wrapped up. The winner of the competition was to have been announced May 31. The space agency is obliged, under the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, to enter into a cooperative agreement with a nonprofit entity — the national lab entity (NLE) — for management of non-NASA science at the ISS national lab.

The act stipulates that “not later than October 1, 2011, ISS national laboratory managed experiments shall be guaranteed access to, and utilization of, not less than 50 percent of the United States research capacity allocation, including power, cold stowage, and requisite crew time onboard the ISS through September 30, 2020.” The winner of the competition will get $15 million in annual assistance from NASA. How the NLE uses the money — to fund research or to cover the overhead of managing ISS-bound experiments — will be up to the organization, NASA said.

The NLE “can decide how to allocate” the money, NASA wrote in a written response to a question about permissible uses of $15 million. However, Uhran urged researchers interested in flying payloads to the ISS “not to go to [the non-profit] for funding. That’s not what they’re there for.” The NLE will be encouraged to seek out new research projects to fly to the ISS.

The NLE will be given authority to pick the order in which interested parties are allowed to fly their experiments. However, the national lab manager also will be charged with collating a stream of research payloads from entities that have already arranged to fly experiments to the ISS. The laboratory manager will receive these “pre-prioritized” payloads from non-NASA agencies, companies doing research under Space Act Agreements with NASA, private companies and nonprofit groups.

Placing that responsibility with the NLE means that NASA will not itself have to peruse and select proposals from outside of the agency. ”We’ve got to work with this non-profit to put together a diverse portfolio” of orbital experiments, Uhran said. Uhran said it would be cost-prohibitive for NASA to manage the logistics of ISS national lab science once the lab ramps up to full capacity. Uhran said that NASA wants to spur nongovernment demand for low Earth orbit services, and that it would cost the agency $1 billion to $2 billion a year to drum up new business from industry, academia and the nonprofit sector, and then package payloads for launch.

Given that the agency expects the ISS’s life cycle cost to top $100 billion, “neither NASA nor the space industry has the fiscal strength to further invest large sums of money into growing the demand side of a [low Earth orbit] economy,” Uhran said. So far, two entities have publicly said that they are competing for the job.

Space Laboratory Associates of Cleveland is one. The new nonprofit is a collaboration between Universities Space Research Association, Columbia, Md., and Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio. An economic development agency from Ohio announced the group’s participation in a press release.

Another contender is the Center for Advancement of Science in Space — a recently formed nonprofit in Florida made up of a number of entities from that state. Space Florida, a state-owned corporation that promotes Aerospace development in Florida, is openly promoting the center’s bid to manage the ISS national lab.

“We would like to have the national lab [manager] here,” said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida. “We think it makes sense.”

 

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