International Space Station:

Significant Challenges May Limit Onboard Research

GAO-10-9: Published: Nov 25, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 22, 2009.

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In 2010, after about 25 years of work and the expenditure of billions of dollars, the International Space Station (ISS) will be completed. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the ISS crew will then be able to redirect its efforts from assembling the station to conducting research. In 2005, Congress designated the ISS as a national laboratory; in addition, the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 required NASA to provide a research management plan for the ISS National Laboratory. In light of these developments, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review the research use of the ISS. Specifically, GAO (1) identified how the ISS is being used for research and how it is expected to be used once completed, (2) identified challenges to maximizing ISS research; and (3) identified common management practices at other national laboratories and large science programs that could be applicable to the management of the ISS. To accomplish this, GAO interviewed NASA officials and reviewed key documents related to the ISS. GAO also studied two ground-based national laboratories and several large science institutions.

The ISS has been continuously staffed since 2000 and now has a six-member crew. The primary objective for the ISS through 2010 is construction, so research utilization has not been the priority. Some research has been and is being conducted as time and resources permit while the crew on board performs assembly tasks, but research will is expected to begin in earnest in 2010. NASA projects that it will utilize approximately 50 percent of the U.S. ISS research facilities for its own research, including the Human Research Program, opening the remaining facilities to U.S. ISS National Laboratory researchers. NASA faces several significant challenges that may impede efforts to maximize utilization of all ISS research facilities, including: (1) the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and reduced launch capabilities for transporting ISS research cargo once the shuttle retires; (2) high costs for launches and no dedicated funding to support research; (3) limited time available for research due to the fixed size of crew and competing demands for the crew's time; and (4) an uncertain future for the ISS beyond 2015. NASA is researching the possibility of developing a management body--including internal and external elements--to manage ISS research, which would make the ISS National Laboratory similar to other national laboratories. Though there is no existing direct analogue to the ISS, GAO studied two national laboratories and several other large science institutions and identified three common practices that these institutions employ that could benefit the management of ISS research. (1) Centralized management body: At each of the institutions GAO studied, there is a central body responsible for prioritizing and selecting research, even if there are different funding agencies. NASA's ISS managers are currently not responsible for evaluating and selecting all research that will be conducted on the ISS, leaving this to the research sponsor. (2) In-house scientific and technical expertise: The institutions GAO studied have large staffs of in-house experts that can provide technical and engineering support to users. NASA's staff members in ISS fundamental science research areas have been decentralized or reassigned, limiting its capability to provide user support. (3) Robust user outreach: The laboratories and institutes GAO studied place a high priority on user outreach and are actively involved in educating and recruiting users. NASA has conducted outreach to potential users in the public and private sectors, but its outreach is limited in comparison.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: If the administration and NASA decide to extend ISS operations beyond 2015 and to provide the resources required for enhanced utilization of the ISS research facilities, the NASA Administrator should ensure that potential and actual ISS users have access to scientific or technical expertise, either in-house or external, in the areas of research relevant to the ISS that can provide assistance to users as required.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, NASA awarded a cooperative agreement with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space Inc. (CASIS) to manage the ISS National Laboratory. As part of this agreement, CASIS will provide for collaboration with subject matter experts to ensure successful experiments, in part through its 25 implementation partners. These partners are companies that are able to provide support services to potential ISS researchers, including access to a large repository of previous space experiments; collaboration with experienced payload developers and other subject matter experts; access to state-of-the-art facilities; and coordination and collaboration with the priniciple investigators to ensure overall project success. GAO believes NASA's agreement with CASIS to provide this type of expertise will help maximize utilization of the ISS National Laboratory and therefore meets the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: If the administration and NASA decide to extend ISS operations beyond 2015 and to provide the resources required for enhanced utilization of the ISS research facilities, the NASA Administrator should establish a body that centrally oversees U.S. ISS research decision making, including the selection of all U.S. research to be conducted on board and ensuring that all U.S. ISS research is meritorious and valid. This body should also be able to strategically prioritize research proposed by many potential sponsors.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As directed by the President's 2011 Budget to Congress, NASA is in the process of establishing a non-profit organization (NPO) through a competitive process to manage the U.S. National (non-NASA) uses of the ISS. An acquisition strategy was approved by the Agency in April 2010, and is in review with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at this time. NASA studied management models and draft the cooperative agreement notice language. NASA anticipates starting the cooperative agreement competition this fall and awarding the NPO agreement during the 3rd Quarter of FY 2011; transitioning management to the NPO during the 4th Quarter of FY 2011.

    Recommendation: If the administration and NASA decide to extend ISS operations beyond 2015 and to provide the resources required for enhanced utilization of the ISS research facilities, the NASA Administrator should implement the first three steps recommended above.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is closed based on a review of the now live NASA ISS website.

    Recommendation: If the Administration and NASA decide to retire the station in 2015 and to continue utilizing the ISS without increasing resources, the NASA Administrator should, if full utilization of available USOS facilities on board the ISS is not possible, consider sharing excess research capacity with the international partners on a quid pro quo basis.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA officials stated that the ISS program plans to fully utilize the available up and down mass, as well as the on-orbit resource capabilities. However, as part of the annual tactical planning process the Program allows all international partners to use excess capacity if and when it is projected to be available. NASA's most current tactical planning document from July 2010 includes NASA and international partner use projections. According to NASA, it is in the process of competitively establishing a non-profit organization to manage the U.S. National (non-NASA) uses of the ISS consistent with with direction in the President's FY2011 Budget to Congress. NASA officials stated that if excess research capacity is available from the U.S. share, NASA plans to employ this "excess research capacity" via the U.S. National non-profit organization. However, NASA officials stated that in the unlikely event that the non-profit organization fails to utilize the excess capacity, NASA will offer it to the International Partners on a quid pro quo basis.

    Recommendation: If the Administration and NASA decide to retire the station in 2015 and to continue utilizing the ISS without increasing resources, the NASA Administrator should, as information develops, inform users on how launch capabilities will be provided to users of the ISS, including how regular these launches will be and what the cost will be (if any) to the users.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the fall of 2010, subsequent to GAO's recommendation, NASA conducted a redesign of its website and included a link to its Consolidated Flight Schedule that provides information on launch opportunities. GAO believes that easy access to this information will improve the ability of potential researchers to plan and develop upcoming research, and thus enhance ISS utilization.

    Recommendation: If the Administration and NASA decide to retire the station in 2015 and to continue utilizing the ISS without increasing resources, the NASA Administrator should further develop online ISS information materials to provide easy access to details about laboratory facilities, opportunities presented by microgravity, available research hardware, resource constraints, and the results of all past ISS research, including successes and failures.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In GAO 10-9, GAO was asked to look at the utilization of International Space Station (ISS) research facilities out of concern that the station's facilities were not being fully utilized. GAO identified shortfalls in NASA's outreach efforts to potential researchers or other users of the ISS. GAO assessed content available on the websites of other U.S. national laboratories, and recommended that NASA take steps to improve its online resources to allow potential users to better identify opportunities to conduct research onboard ISS and the available facilities. Subsequent to that report, NASA assembled a team to assess the websites for several U.S. national laboratories, and restructured the ISS home page to include additional content for potential ISS users. This website content went live in the fall of 2010. We believe the actions NASA has taken make the website more useful and accessible, and will improve user outreach and education, and will help broaden the user community.

    Recommendation: If the Administration and NASA decide to retire the station in 2015 and to continue utilizating the ISS without increasing resources, the NASA Administrator should develop and implement a plan to broaden and enhance ongoing outreach to potential users, including those in the commercial sector, with consideration given to the tight time frames for the ISS.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA officials told GAO that the agency has continued to broaden outreach efforts through the generation and distribution of the Research in Space Facilities on the International Space Station publication, which describes all the research facilities on the ISS, as well as some research results highlights. According to NASA, this document has been distributed to thousands of prospective users of the ISS, and includes points of contact for each participating ISS partner agency. Further, NASA officials state that they and the ISS partner agencies are continuing with outreach efforts by recently publishing The Era of International Space Station Utilization: Perspectives on Strategy From International Research Leaders report. NASA states that this document was developed by international research leaders, including both ISS and non-ISS investigators. It describes specific potential scientific areas of study that can occurr onboard the ISS and the benefits to ISS research. NASA states that this report will be posted to its website and distributed to prospective users of the ISS. Since GAO 10-9 was issued, NASA states it has established new agreements with the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency and the National Science Foundation, as well as with Boeing, Microsoft, and Lego. They added that agreements are in the works with multiple university researchers and one private firm at this time. New NASA resarch announcements have been announced in Crew Health and Performance and Materials Science in the past few months. There are upcoming NASA research announcments from the Science Mission Directorate for Research Opportunitites in Space and Earth Sciencies. They added that the Explorer 2010 Stand Alone Missions of Opportunity Notice will list ISS as an acceptable platform. Additionally, the National Lab office has posted a Broad Agency Announcment entitled Enabling Support Equipment and Services for International Space Station (ISS) as a National Lab. The BAA is focused on the commercial sector use of ISS, and will be updated annually. NASA officials stated that the agency will continue to issue new NRA's as consistent with future funding availability. NASA officials stated that the agency has added the capability to deploy CubeSats from various expendable vehicles including the ISS commercial cargo resupply missions as another means of opening up the opportunity for space flight research to a larger group. Finally, NASA also held its first ISS Research Academy for new ISS researchers, a 3-day event that explained the science that can be done on the ISS, research funding opportunties and how to apply for funding, and the process for working on the ISS. There were over 270 attendees at this event.

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