The international space station (ISS) has long been pitched as a destination for the private sector’s science experiments.
To help spur wider use of the orbiting outpost’s research facilities, the U.S. Congress in 2005 designated NASA’s side of the space station as a national laboratory. Then in 2010, as a decade of on-orbit assembly neared completion, Congress further directed NASA to hold a competition and select a nonprofit organization for this task. The winner would act as a sort of economic development agency for the ISS National Laboratory — and receive $15 million a year from NASA to do so.
In late 2011, NASA announced its choice: the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS. The state of Florida, through its aerospace economic development arm Space Florida, contributed about $1 million — and some advocacy at the federal level — to the CASIS cause.
CASIS is headquartered at the Space Life Sciences Laboratory, a building owned by the state of Florida and, for now, located at the very southern edge of the Kennedy Space Center. Until 2010, CSS Dynamac — a Fairfax, Va.-company that along with Boeing and Bionetics Corp. backed the CASIS proposal — used the building to prepare research payloads bound for the ISS.
CASIS will ultimately act as a networking service between space scientists, payload integration specialists and, in some cases, investors. It will also be a financial analyst of sorts, evaluating candidate science projects for those with the potential to generate profitable spinoff products. The first CASIS solicitation for ISS-bound research is due toward the end of the fledgling group’s first full year of operation, said Jeanne Becker, who in September became CASIS director.
In the meantime, Becker said, CASIS is in the process of setting up its science-networking database and taking over responsibility for 11 arrangements NASA has made with outside groups who want to send payloads to the ISS lab. Becker is a former associate director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute outside Houston. She also served as chief scientist for Astrogenetix Inc., an Astrotech subsidiary preparing to use the ISS to continue salmonella vaccine research started on the space shuttle.
Becker spoke recently with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.
How will CASIS decide which proposals merit flights to ISS?
In addition to evaluating the merits of the science, we’re also going to be evaluating the return on investment that comes out of that science. For example, if you’re developing a new kind of a cancer drug, you would look at incidence of the particular cancer that the drug might work against, the number of lives that might be saved, dollars that would be saved not having to use other drugs, quality of life measures that would be enhanced, that kind of a thing. Really, one of the goals of the organization is not only to support space station utilization but to actually bring products to life, bring products to market. That’s an important aspect to consider. It’s not all about doing research for people who have never done it. It’s also for people who are coming in from academia and maybe they have mature space-based research and they’re interested in creating a product but need help with intellectual property.
How many people are working at CASIS now?
Most of the senior positions have been hired already. We’re up to 18 full-time employees and we have seven senior positions and 10 part-time consultants. At full staffing, we’re estimating around 40 to 45 people.
What is CASIS working on right now?
We have a request for information out, with responses due March 31. The idea behind this is we’re creating a database called “the marketplace.” The marketplace is a way of facilitating partnerships between not just users and potential funding sources — and certainly it will be aimed at that — but also to introduce users, especially new users in the community, to the implementation partners who have the capabilities to enable the kind of science that the particular user wants to do. We’re also working now with NASA’s own ISS National Laboratory Office to take over responsibility for the current users.
You mean companies such as Astrogenetix and NanoRacks that already have agreements with NASA to fly payloads to the station?
Yes. These user groups are now operating under Space Act Agreements with NASA. We don’t have Space Act Agreements — obviously, we’re not NASA — so all of those current documents are being transitioned into what we’re calling a “memorandum of agreement” that will be with us. Moving forward, we will have our own legal and binding agreements with each of the user groups, so that’s one difference. That sounds maybe just procedural, but it’s actually kind of a big deal. We’re taking all of the existing documents and transferring them into something that we will be able to administer.
Some of those Space Act Agreements include flight dates as early as 2012. What transportation options can CASIS offer at this point?
Transportation is something that’s clearly NASA’s purview, and they have provided CASIS allocation on the[Space Exploration Technologies] Dragon cargo vehicle. All of us are dependent on the SpaceX program moving ahead.
Only on SpaceX vehicles? What about Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus transfer vehicle, or the European or Japanese systems?
I just know that we have been given allocation through NASA on the SpaceX vehicle. That’s not to say anything about any other vehicles. To get payloads up that don’t have to come down, sure: They could go on transfer vehicles, resupply vehicles. Honestly, I hope that we have access to many kinds of vehicles, because that will only enlarge the user population. The more the merrier. I’m all for it.
Will anyone who wants to do research on the ISS be able to use your database to find potential funding sources, or firms that can design and integrate their payloads?
Those are various elements of the marketplace. It’s going to be accessible on our website and we will also be having a membership function so people can join as members, and that will allow them additional activities within the marketplace. We haven’t developed the membership function yet because that’s going to be in large part guided by the establishment of this marketplace function.
Would there be a membership fee?
We’re looking at that right now, and it might be a sliding scale. I don’t want to say, because we don’t have all the details. It’s indeterminate, at this time.
Will CASIS actually fund ISS flight experiments?
CASIS will issue an annual solicitation. The first will be released near the end of the first year of operation and they will be issued annually thereafter. The solicitations will be issued in research areas, as is done for other organizations, not according to specific requirements. The funding is provided in small amounts, not large drawdowns.
NASA has been reaching out to the private sector for years trying to foster interest in ISS as a research and development platform. Yet there doesn’t appear to be a long line of self-funded users clamoring for flights. How can CASIS change that, and why is now the time?
Well, previously, space station was being constructed. It’s hard to do a lot of science while you’re building something. It’s like doing research in your lab while you’re building it. Now we have a complete station, dedicated now to doing long-term research and development and supporting the kinds of work that maybe could not be done during a construction phase. That’s one big difference.
“Long-term research and development” sounds like it might take more time to complete than the space station has left in orbit. Is that a worry for CASIS as it searches for potentially profitable science to send to station?
Well, that is a time limitation that we have in front of us. Operationally, CASIS will function through 2020, the lifespan that the U.S. is going to be supporting station operations. Does that limit what we can do? I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I have to think that there will be, there is, some mature science out there that will be completed in that timeframe. I have to imagine that when we do get good results, and we will, perhaps that will be an impetus for continued operations in an environment like ISS — or another station, if there is one at some point.
Does that mean that the more mature the research, the better the chance it has to reach the space station through CASIS?
Of course it will make sense to send mature science. That said, it might be that there’s a piece of science that needs one flight, one opportunity or two opportunities and then you get the data you need and you run on the ground with it.