ISS National Lab work continues amid NASA review

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TEMPE, Ariz. — An independent review of the nonprofit organization that operates the portion of the International Space Station designated a national lab has not affected its day-to-day work, an organization official said Sept. 16.

NASA announced Aug. 13 that it would perform an independent review of the ISS National Laboratory, legally known as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). That review, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said then was intended to ensure “we are on mission and appropriately resourced.”

NASA also directed a “strategic pause in CASIS activities” in a letter to the organization sent at the same time, while the independent review takes place. That wording created some initial confusion about what activities by the organization would be put on hold.

In a presentation at a commercial microgravity workshop at Arizona State University here, Cindy Martin-Brennan, director of stakeholder management for CASIS, said the review has had little effect on the organization’s ongoing work coordinating research on the station. Instead, the review will take a more strategic look at what the organization does and what resources it needs.

The review, she said, was linked to new programs the organization announced at the ISS Research and Development Conference in Atlanta at the end of July, including new initiatives to promote research in advanced materials and industrial biomedicine. “After we rolled out those programs, I think NASA decided to see if the International Space Station National Lab is resourced appropriately to carry out these two areas,” she said.

That review, she added, can also help guide the organization amid expectations that operations of the station will be extended beyond 2024, perhaps to 2030 or beyond. “Now is the right time to take that pause and see if we are on a good path, resource-wise, implementation-wise,” she said.

Neither NASA nor CASIS has commented on the status of the review since the agency’s announcement of it a month ago. NASA said Elizabeth Cantwell, the senior vice president for research and innovation at University of Arizona and an expert on life and physics sciences research in space, would chair the review, but disclosed few other details about the review. NASA did state last month that it expected the review to take 12 weeks.

The “strategic pause” is primarily linked to the status of the president and chief executive of CASIS, Joseph Vockley. According to sources familiar with the organization’s activities, the CASIS board of directors sought to remove Vockley, a move that required the approval of NASA since he is listed as the principal investigator on the agency’s contract with NASA to operate the national lab. NASA declined the request and called for the strategic pause and review.

CASIS hasn’t commented on those reports, but its website still lists Vockley as president and chief executive.