With the lengthy assembly of the International Space Station drawing to a close, NASA is moving to extend use of the orbiting laboratory to other federal agencies, academia and the private sector through a fast-paced competition to select a non-profit manager for oversight of the broad, cutting-edge research agenda envisioned by Congress under a National Laboratory designation.
The selection of an ISS National Lab oversight organization, which NASA intends to announce on May 31, is among the latest signs the six-person orbital outpost is reaching maturity after a dozen years of construction.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) second Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-2), a vital part of the station’s post-shuttle era supply chain, docked with the ISS on Feb. 24, about 6 hr. before shuttle Discovery lifted off on the first of three final missions to finish the assembly task.
The STS-133 mission, marking Discovery’s final flight, will equip the station’s U.S. segment with a stowage module primarily for research gear. Endeavour’s STS-134 mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is set for a late April departure. STS-135, a recently manifested but unfunded supply mission aboard Atlantis, would bring the outfitting phase to a close this summer.
“We are trying to maximize the value to the American public for the investments that have been made in the ISS,” says Mark Uhran, assistant associate administrator for the ISS. “We see a potential in science, engineering and commercial development. This will be an important step in making sure that productivity is realized.”
More than 100 representatives from prospective management organizations and research groups participated in the NASA ISS National Lab forum in December. Under a Feb. 14 Cooperative Agreement Notice, the agency intends to fund the management organization at $15 million annually.
NASA seeks a non-profit manager prepared to allocate at least some of the funding to expand as well as prioritize research outside of space exploration in human health, biology, physical and materials science, commercial new technologies, Earth observation and science-relatededucation.
The oversight organization will be expected to broker station resources. Applicants will be required to “respond” to hypothetical disruptions grounded in real-world possibilities, including the sudden thermal control system shutdown that hobbled the ISS in August and the prospect of a “major discovery” that merits a sudden diversion of most resources.
“The future productivity of the station will be based on organizations other than NASA.” said Uhran. “It’s extremely important we get this process right.”
The station’s National Laboratory designation grew out of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. That and subsequent legislation sets aside half of the station’s U.S. operational segment for use by non-NASA researchers. The segment includes NASA’s Destiny lab, half the volumes of the European Columbus and Japanese Kibo labs, as well as external research platforms.
NASA will furnish transportation for national lab experiments, primarily aboard the planned SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus commercial spacecraft, plus electricity, thermal control and about 1,000 hr. of astronaut time annually.
The ISS National Lab manager will be expected to ramp up quickly as the Dragon and Cygnus initiate the transportation services over the next 12-15 months, according to Uhran.
Though controversial throughout its costly early development, the ISS has been transformed into a symbol of U.S.-fostered global cooperation.
The White House and Congress, along with NASA’s Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian partners, have expressed support for an extension of station operations from 2016 until at least 2020.
President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget anticipates a steady increase in funding for station operations, to nearly $3.2 billion in 2016 from $2.3 billion this year.
Meanwhile, ESA and their industry counterparts hope the successful launching of the ATV-2 will encourage member states to provide generous funding for ISS when they meet next month to approve financing for the extension.
Together with Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle and Russia’s Progress, the ATV will shoulder station supply duties until U.S. commercial supply vehicles enter service. Four more ATVs are currently planned.
Germany, Europe’s biggest station backer, estimates at least €380 million per year ($521 million) will be needed for the station in the next decade, including money to purchase an additional two ATVs to cover provision of another five years of NASA services, and to bankroll ATV design enhancements.