NASA Plans for Nonprofit To Manage Station Research

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — NASA is making plans to competitively select a domestic nonprofit organization to manage experiments aboard the international space station (ISS), according to agency officials, and is expected to set aside at least 50 percent of U.S. research capacity aboard the orbiting outpost for non-NASA use.

“It’s time to start making a NASA investment in the buyers, the nongovernment end-users, so that we stimulate a future nongovernmental market,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in remarks at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here Oct. 21. “That’s our objective in establishing a nonprofit organization to stimulate, develop and manage use of ISS by entities other than the government.”

Given President Barack Obama’s pledge to extend space station operations through at least 2020 and foster development of commercial space transportation systems for ferrying people and cargo there, Garver said the agency sees an opportunity to expand use of the station to non-NASA users, including federal and state government agencies and private companies.

“We don’t talk enough about why NASA requires this transportation system and how this policy is part of a broader commercial picture for low Earth orbit research and commerce with the international space station as a flagship program,” Garver said, adding that NASA expects to enter into a competitive acquisition to establish the nonprofit “very soon.”

NASA spokesman Michael Curie said NASA is in the process of drafting a solicitation for the competition, though no target release date is set. In an Oct. 22 e-mail he said the so-called Cooperative Agreement Notice would be open only to U.S. organizations.

“This will be an open and competitive acquisition of a cooperative agreement,” Curie said, adding that the initiative is directed by congressional legislation Obama signed into law Oct. 11. “Further information on the release of draft and final versions will be announced in the future.”

According to the newly enacted law, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA must enter into a cooperative agreement with a nonprofit entity dedicated to managing U.S. research activities aboard station and guarantee that national laboratory experiments have access to “not less than 50 percent of the United States research capacity allocation.” The law gives NASA until next October to make that happen.

The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the U.S. segment of the space station for use as a national laboratory with the goal of increasing non-NASA and private sector use of the orbiting outpost for basic and applied research. NASA projects that it will utilize approximately 50 percent of the U.S. space station research facilities for its own use, including human research programs, leaving the remaining facilities open to non-NASA research, according to a November 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office titled “International Space Station: Significant Challenges May Limit Onboard Research.”

According to the newly enacted law, NASA is to provide initial funding assistance to the nonprofit group, though the law does not specify a timeline or authorize a specific funding level for the effort.

The law states that the nonprofit entity must be engaged exclusively in activities related to the management of the space station’s national lab “without any other organizational objectives or responsibilities on behalf of the organization or any parent organization or other entity.”