WASHINGTON – Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who now chairs a key subcommittee that oversees NASA, is pushing a plan to turn the international space station into a national laboratory, similar in concept at least to Sandia, Livermore and the 11 other labs that perform cutting edge research in the national interest.

Hutchison, a Texas Republican, offered the idea April 20 at a hearing of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee she now chairs.

Most of the existing national labs have their roots in the quest to crack the atom; many of them still focus on national security issues or perform fundamental research into the nature of the atom. They are managed by companies or universities.

Hutchison made clear during the hearing she wants the central focus of the space station to be scientific research with applications beyond the goal of better understanding the risks and solutions to humans’ long-term exposure to space. “This facility is capable of doing much more for our nation — and for the world,” she said. She added that she wants to see the United States “rewarded to the greatest extent possible by the fulfillment of the purposes for which [the space station] has been designed, defended within the Congress and is being assembled in orbit.”

Hutchison seems to be bucking the administration by taking that approach, as was made clear by testimony at the hearing.

“The space station was originally presented to the Congress as a facility that would have eight functions,” Marcia Smith, an expert on space matter at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, told Hutchison’s subcommittee. “Within five years that had been reduced to one — a laboratory for world-class research. That research program has been affected by reductions in funding… and now by the direction of President Bush, narrowing the scope to only research that supports the (exploration) vision.”

In addition, new NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the full Senate Commerce Committee at his confirmation hearing that he expected the space station would be used for research on the effects of long-duration spaceflight.

Currently, little research is being done on the station beyond experiments on bone loss in astronauts and how to counter it, and the growing of protein crystals. As Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space operations, pointed out in testimony before Hutchison’s subcommittee, the racks and other equipment needed to support experiments on the station sit in Florida waiting for a ride on the space shuttle. But Hutchison clearly hopes for a wider role for the station — and more funding for it. “Her main focus for the space station is scientific research and she believes this is a great idea to further that research,” said the senator’s spokesman, Chris Paulitz. “That will open up money to come from nonpublic funding. If a research company wants testing done they would be able to help fund testing. It would not further burden the taxpayers.”

What about the other 15 international partners — Canada, Japan, Russia, 11 nations of the European Space Agency and Brazil — who help build and supply the space station?

“We would think that anything that would advance scientific research would be welcomed with open arms,” Paulitz said.

An official with the European Space Agency said they had no comment yet because they weren’t sure what national lab status might mean for space station operations or management.

But the director of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board believes it is premature to make any decisions about how to manage it until the public gains a clearer understanding of how much science the station will be able to support.

“Before we say let’s make it a national lab, we have to have some sense of what research can be supported on the space station,” NRC’s Joe Alexander said April 21. “Until you get to a point where you know, it’s kind of hard to focus on making the space station a national lab yet.”

The Space Studies Board makes scientific recommendations to the federal government on space research. Before changing the status of the space station, Alexander said scientists need a better understanding of how many astronauts will regularly be supported in the station. “How much can we take up and return to earth? If there are going to be research animals, can we transport them and how many will the station support?”

And, Alexander notes, “The international partners still have their own objectives for what they would like to do.”

The Space Studies Board studied how best to manage the space station four years ago and recommended a body similar to the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees the Hubble Space Telescope. Such a management structure would protect the space station from competition from any of NASA’s flight centers, Alexander noted, and guarantee the scientific community the best chance for unbiased decisions as to which experiments would make best use of the station’s unique capabilities.