WASHINGTON — Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation urged NASA to strip a Florida nonprofit of its status as manager of the international space station’s national laboratory and give the job to a Cleveland-based group instead.
“In light of the events of the last six months, culminating with the resignation of the head of the Center for Advancement in Science and Space (CASIS), we are writing to encourage you to reconsider your contract, and express our strong support for reconsideration of the Space Laboratory Associates proposal to manage the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory,” the lawmakers wrote in an April 4 letter to Mark Uhran, NASA assistant associate administrator for ISS.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) took the lead on the letter, which was co-signed by 13 of Ohio’s 18 U.S. representatives and published on Brown’s website.
NASA spokesman Mike Curie said April 4 that “no decision has been made at this time to take any action to alter the CASIS cooperative agreement.”
CASIS spokesman Bobby Block told Space News that the Florida nonprofit “is meeting its milestones established by NASA and we are working overtime to maximize use of the ISS U.S. National Laboratory.
“Reopening the management contract will only lead to further delays in ISS utilization and will send the wrong signal to commercial companies and researchers looking for progress in their ability to access space,” Block continued.
Without elaborating, Block added that “big announcements are in the pipeline” from CASIS. The next day CASIS announced that surgeon and researcher Timothy Yeatman had been named interim chief scientist and Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator for science, had joined CASIS as its top science adviser.
CASIS, a group backed by Florida’s economic development agency Space Florida and headquartered in the Space Life Sciences Laboratory at the southern tip of the Kennedy Space Center, was selected by NASA in July to manage all nonagency science on the U.S. side of the ISS, which an act of Congress has designated a national laboratory.
Part of CASIS’s mandate is connecting would-be researchers with sources of financing and providers of payload integration services — in effect, to act as an economic development agency for the orbital outpost. To facilitate that task, the group receives $15 million in annual funding from NASA. Of that, roughly $3 million is for research grants, said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
Gerstenmaier spoke April 4 at a joint meeting of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. He addressed the meeting immediately after Gale Allen, director of strategic integration and management at NASA headquarters, who defended CASIS’s progress.
“[I]t’s on track. The board of directors is being put in place, there’s a plan in place to find funding and capability for additional science aboard space station,” Allen said. “It’s healthy and moving forward.”
Gerstenmaier, NASA’s top human spaceflight official, was more reserved but did not pass judgment on the newly created organization.
“To be totally frank, I think it’s a little early to judge,” Gerstenmaier said. “This is a very different model than we’ve done before.”
Gerstenmaier spoke to scientists and engineers here a week after testifying at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on ISS utilization, during which Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) called for a Government Accountability Office review of CASIS.
In a competition last summer, CASIS beat out the Ohio-based Space Laboratory Associates, a collaboration between Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.
CASIS came under fire from U.S. lawmakers in early March when its executive director, veteran research scientist Jeanne Becker, abruptly quit.
In a hotly worded resignation letter, Becker said she had faced political pressure to engage in what she said were actions that might jeopardize CASIS’s nonprofit status.
The manager of the ISS National Laboratory must by law be a nonprofit.
Becker said her concerns centered around collaboration with consulting firm ProOrbis LLC of Malvern, Pa. That company was hired by NASA to write a reference model that described how a nonprofit ISS National Lab management entity might be set up.
ProOrbis went on to help Space Florida write CASIS’s winning proposal.
ProOrbis’ organizational blueprint formed the basis for CASIS, and the firm set itself for a consulting role in the new nonprofit — something that CASIS and its acting chairman, Space Florida President Frank DiBello, maintains is legal and appropriate.
DiBello has said that CASIS has been aware from the beginning that it would have to take certain steps to avoid losing its not-for-profit tax status, and that paying ProOrbis for consulting services does not threaten that status.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, in a March Senate hearing, warned that CASIS risked losing its status as the ISS National Lab manager if it missed milestones.