Bridenstine speaking at ISSRDC
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discussed his desire to support industrialization of low Earth orbit in a July 31 speech at the ISS Research and Development Conference in Atlanta. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

WASHINGTON — NASA will perform an independent review of the non-profit organization that runs the portion of the International Space Station designated a national laboratory while also calling for a “strategic pause” in that organization’s work.

In a pair of tweets late Aug. 13, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he was calling for the independent review of the organization, legally known as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) but which in the last year has rebranded itself as simply the ISS National Laboratory, to ensure its work is aligned with NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization strategy announced in June.

“NASA is calling for an independent review team to evaluate the ISS Nat’l Lab, managed by CASIS, to ensure we are on mission & appropriately resourced to produce breakthroughs that improve lives on Earth,” Bridenstine wrote.

This independent review will be led by Elizabeth R. Cantwell, the Senior Vice President of Research & Innovation at the University of Arizona. She is jointly commissioned by the heads of the Science Mission Directorate & the Human Exploration & Operations Mission Directorate.

— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) August 14, 2019

That independent review will be jointly commissioned by the NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. It will be led by Elizabeth Cantwell, who joined the University of Arizona in July as its senior vice president for research and innovation. Cantwell was the co-chair of a 2011 decadal survey for life and physical sciences research in space, and served on the National Academies’ Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space and its Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.

Bridenstine’s tweets offered few additional details about the review, and a CASIS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment late Aug 13.

However, a NASA letter to CASIS, dated Aug. 13 and obtained by SpaceNews, called for a “strategic pause in CASIS activities” while the independent review panel works “to ensure we are on mission and appropriately resourced to produce breakthroughs that improve lives on Earth.” The letter estimated the that review would take 12 weeks to complete.

The letter also referenced a request by CASIS “to change or significantly reduce the availability of services” of Joseph Vockley, who is president and chief executive of CASIS and serves as principal investigator for NASA’s grant to CASIS to operate the ISS national lab. NASA said it was deferring that request until after “this strategic pause and assessment.” A source familiar with the situation said that the CASIS board recently sought to remove Vockley, a move that would require the concurrence of NASA.

Nearly two weeks earlier, Bridenstine and Vockley appeared together at a press conference during the ISS Research and Development Conference, run by CASIS, in Atlanta. At the event they seemed to agree on the role CASIS can play in supporting research and advancing it to the point where it can be commercialized.

“NASA is a fabulous partner. They enable everything that we do,” Vockley said at the July 31 event. “We find the relationship to be very stimulating and it helps us to move forward in our mission.”

Bridenstine was asked at that event if he expected changes in NASA’s relationship with CASIS in order to order better tie the ISS National Lab’s work into the agency’s overall LEO commercialization strategy. “From my perspective, the answer is absolutely,” he responded. “I think Dr. Vockley has already made great strides towards this end.” He didn’t elaborate on the changes he expected or sought in that relationship.

CASIS, which has operated the portion of ISS facilities designated a national laboratory since 2011, has attracted criticism from some in the space community for a perceived lack of progress, including failing to make full use of the resources allocated to it on the station.

In addition to the independent review and strategic pause at CASIS, NASA is moving its liaison to CASIS from the agency’s ISS division to its LEO commercialization activities, according to a Aug. 13 memo from Ken Bowersox, acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...