Reducing the Cost of ISS Payload Operations

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In the April 18 issue of Space News, Allen Wessels writes that he is concerned about the potential demise of the international space station [“ISS: an Extraordinary Environment for Research,” page 19]. He advocates doing more research, targeted to the markets that will help support our country’s Vision for Space Exploration. He makes some good, rational points. I would like to add a few items for consideration to expand on his views.

The figure given of “$30 billion (so far)” spent on the ISS seems too low. My best estimate is around $80 billion and rising. Whatever the exact figure, the point is that we have invested a great deal of capital into this infrastructure project, and it would be nonsensical to “cancel all the U.S. programs that might want to use it,” as Mr. Wessels implied a current threat exists.

To be fair to NASA, an attempt was made to seek ways to reduce the payload operations costs on ISS through a study called Payload Operations Concepts and Architecture Assessment Study (POCAAS). Computer Sciences Corp. conducted the study and involved a panel of experts familiar with both shuttle and ISS payloads. One conclusion was that some requirements were unrealistic and unnecessary, and that costs could be saved by relaxing some requirements while not compromising safety.

Let’s think about the actual utilization of the ISS. Even when the shuttle was flying payloads back and forth to the station, very little commercial work was being done because of the very high costs to integrate a payload and to meet unrealistic payload requirements. By easing requirements and not compromising safety, the cost to integrate a payload would be less, and maybe commercial entities could be convinced that it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Some examples given in the report include a color requirement for the front of each payload. Does it really matter what color it is? Another example is the shape of a painted box around the switch plates — round vs. square corners. A further example is the throw angle requirement for switches.

Who cares if switches have a 35 degree or a 45 degree throw? Real people and engineers and scientists do not care — it costs money to fulfill these kinds of requirements and I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg. Costs could be reduced by reconsidering unnecessary requirements like these.

The study acknowledges that “a steep on-orbit learning curve was experienced in managing a very complex space facility, which imposed significant requirements and process constraints on the payload operations organization.”

However, it then goes on to find that “ISS requirements are too demanding, and enforcement of compliance to these requirements is too strict. There are too many repetitive reviews involving principal investigators (PIs) and payload developers (PDs). Processes are too complicated and inflexible.”

The recommendation on this point is to “reengineer and streamline the payload integration process, including payload operations.” This study was released in early 2002, and made some projections of significant cost savings based on a number of scenarios.

The logical solution seems to me to optimize the ISS, as per POCAAS and other thinking, so that it can support our Vision for Space Exploration, and leverage our huge investment in the best way possible. This will mean lowering operating expenses, and attracting the sort of researchers that Mr. Wessels refers to in his article.

Allison Rae Hannigan
Sammamish, Washington