FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Science Committee Holds Hearing to Review Plans for the International Space Station

Aline D. McNaull
Number 50 - April 13, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The ISS [International Space Station] is an extraordinary engineering achievement. And it is a remarkably successful international collaboration that presents us an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish beneficial scientific research. I would like to see the ISS live up to its promising potential. I would like to see it enable scientists and researchers to do innovative research – the kind of life-saving biomedical research – that can only be done in space. Fulfilling the promise of the ISS would not only serve humanity, it would also strengthen America’s leadership in science, technology and education.” – Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX)

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled, “Securing the Promise of the ISS – Challenges and Opportunities.”  The purpose of this March 28 hearing was to review NASA’s plans for effectively managing and utilizing the International Space Station (ISS) through 2020, including how NASA plans to continue conducting research aboard the ISS and how the agency will ensure that essential transportation and facilities resources are adequate to meet scientific research needs.

Testifying before the committee were William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate; Christina Chaplain, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO); and Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford, US Air Force (Retired), Chairman of the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

The ISS is a culmination of international research collaboration between the US, Canada, Europe, Japanese and Russian partners.  The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the ISS as a national laboratory and directed NASA to utilize it for research through cost sharing and partnerships.  The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 required NASA to develop a Research Management Plan to prioritize research activities and the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 extended the mission by a minimum of 5 years, from 2015 to at least October of 2020. 

Both sides of the aisle showed support for the research conducted by NASA on the ISS.
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) emphasized the need for a clear plan for utilization of the ISS while Chairman Hall expressed concerns for sustaining the ISS and fulfilling its research potential.  Both Democrats and Republicans expressed the importance of the ISS as a technological achievement.    

“Supplying and utilizing the ISS is simply too important to be left to others,” stated Hall.  “I am often painfully reminded that NASA will rely on our Russian partners for crew transportation to ISS for the next several years.”

Hall was concerned about the back-up capabilities available for access to the ISS:

“I also want to reiterate again that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed that the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule be designed to provide a back-up capability for access to the ISS.  After spending tens of billions of dollars to build the space station, Congress wanted to ensure that a national capability to access it was not jeopardized by over-reliance on untested commercial propositions.”

Johnson highlighted the benefit that the ISS has to students interested in science as she emphasized the need to make the ISS a productive research facility:

It is an accomplishment that has had great inspirational value for our young people, as evidenced by the intense interest of our students in talking to the orbiting astronauts and in developing science projects that might fly on the Station.  However, while we can talk about the promise offered by the ISS in enabling future space exploration as well as carrying out basic and applied research that can benefit life here on Earth, its success in fulfilling that promise is not assured. We will only realize its promise if NASA and Congress ensure that the necessary steps are taken to make the ISS a productive research facility and technology testbed.”

Regarding the ISS research budget, Johnson stated:

“If we want to ensure that the ISS carries out the needed research and technology activities in a timely and productive fashion, we have to be willing to make the needed investments. The ISS research budget is stagnating, and the agency’s life and microgravity sciences budget has been cut deeply over the past decade. That does not seem to me to be a formula for success.”

Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Jerry Costello (D-IL) also stressed, in his written statement, the importance of the ISS in addressing unknowns in scientific understanding:

“With all that it took to get the ISS to where it is today, we must ensure it is fully utilized so U.S. taxpayers can see a return on their investment of over $50 billion.  Congress stressed the importance of ISS utilization in numerous authorization and appropriations Acts...  Before we can make concrete plans for sending humans to explore faraway places like Mars, we need to better understand how to deal with such unknowns as radiation and bone loss and how human beings react to being in a closed environment in space for months, even years, at a time.  The ISS is a unique platform that will help us do the research necessary to gain such understanding.”

Gerstenmaier gave an overview of the ISS facility including the US and international cargo and crew transportation systems as well as the operating systems.  He also provided a description of the range of scientific research that is part of the growth in the utilization of the ISS. He stated, the ISS has now entered its intensive research phase, and this phase will continue through at least 2020. Station will continue to meet NASA’s mission objective to prepare for the next steps in human space exploration -- steps which will take astronauts beyond LEO to destinations such as the asteroids, the Moon, and eventually, Mars.”

Chaplain discussed the results of a GAO assessment on the access and use of the ISS.  The GAO concluded that there is still a question as to whether NASA will be able to service the station and productively use it for science in the long term. She concluded in her written testimony, the road ahead depends on successfully overcoming several complex challenges, such as technical success, funding, international agreements, and management and oversight of the national laboratory. Finally, if any of these challenges cannot be overcome, it will be contingent upon NASA to ensure that all alternatives are explored—in a timely manner—to make full use of the nation’s significant investment in ISS.”

Stafford addressed whether NASA’s current plans are adequate to ensure that the requirements are met through at least 2020.  He expressed his reservations regarding the commercial vehicle launch schedule: 

NASA’s current plans are adequate to ensure that requirements for ISS maintenance, growth, crew supplies, and expendables, NASA’s scientific research utilization, National Laboratory growth and utilization, and other contingency maintenance, can be met for the immediate future (at least 1 – 2 years)…. Beyond that timeframe, NASA becomes increasingly dependent on its projected flow of sparing and re-supply needs, on the planned fleet of cargo vehicles which includes the ATV, HTV, Progress, and Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) Vehicles. In joint assessment with the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), my ISS Advisory Committee concluded that the commercial vehicle launch schedule was overly optimistic and we have not received sufficient data to conclude with confidence that the schedule could be met. This was the unanimous conclusion of both groups.”

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
amcnaull@aip.org
301-209-3094