NASA and space station alliance on shaky ground

Even as the latest shift of astronauts arrived at the International Space Station, NASA challenges with the orbital outpost  on the ground are threatening its future.

Those challenges include the pending retirement of the space shuttle but also the way NASA and the ISS are managed. A report issued this week by the Government Accountability Office said NASA faces several significant issues that may impede efforts to maximize utilization of all ISS research facilities. The main challenges are, according to the GAO report:

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The Space Shuttle is currently slated to retire in 2010, and as of November 2009 only five launch opportunities remain. The GAO has previously reported that the ISS will face a significant cargo supply shortfall without the Space Shuttle.11 Since NASA has the few remaining Space Shuttle flights scheduled to carry equipment required for assembly, operations, and maintenance, there may be limited cargo capacity for research payloads. Potential researchers and others have told the GAO that they have faced difficulty in getting payloads scheduled on board the Space Shuttle in a reasonable amount of time.

Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, NASA will rely on an assortment of vehicles in order to provide the necessary logistical support and crew rotation capabilities required for the ISS, but none will offer the same cargo capabilities as the Space Shuttle delivering cargo to the ISS and delivering cargo back to Earth.

Too expensive: NASA officials have stated that it is significantly more expensive to conduct research on board the ISS than on Earth and the agency now views lack of funding for research as the major challenge to full research utilization of the ISS. According to NASA, one of the major costs is the cost to launch payloads to the ISS. When the Space Shuttle retires, the Russian Federal Space Agency and later the commercial launch partners will be able to set the launch costs. Costs to the user of the ISS vary: NASA signed a memorandum of understanding with NIH as an ISS National Laboratory user to launch biomedical experiments to the ISS, and NASA officials have stated that the agency will work with NIH to determine the demand for launch services and accommodate NIH payloads. However, NASA officials said the agency has set no money aside for ISS National Laboratory payload development or transportation, and it may be unable to provide complimentary launch opportunities to National Laboratory users.

According to the GAO, NASA said launch cost estimates of $44,000 per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) along with the caveat that the costs to develop and launch experiments vary widely depending on the experiment. Researchers the GAO spoke with gave higher estimates for payload costs. USDA reported that the average payload cost for its experiments, which were individually contained in a compartment the size of a shoe box, was about $250,000. Though specific figures will vary depending on the nature of the payload, these types of costs may be prohibitive to researchers who are responsible for seeking their own funding. According to NASA officials, the National Laboratory designation does not guarantee an appropriation specifically for ISS National Laboratory, and it is unclear if NASA or other federal agencies will be able to provide any funding support to facilitate ISS utilization, the GAO report stated.

While it has budgeted funds to allow for extension of the ISS, NASA is currently following the direction of the previous administration and budgeted to end its participation in the ISS at the end of 2015; if this does not change, there will be only a 5-year window during which the ISS will be available for dedicated research utilization, the GAO reported

Limited staff resources: NASA also ranks limited crew time as a significant constraint for science on board the ISS. The size of the crew on board the station is constrained at six by the number of spaces available in the “lifeboats,” or docked spacecraft that can transport the crew in case of an emergency. As such, at present crew time cannot be increased to meet increased demand. Further, crew time is shared between NASA and its international partners (JAXA, ESA, CSA, and Russia). According to NASA, the ISS crew members work 8.5 hours a day, and during this time they conduct maintenance, vehicle traffic operations, training, medical operations, human research experiments, and the experiments of NASA and the international partners. NASA documentation shows that the remaining crew time will be spent eating, sleeping, and exercising, the GAO reported.

Uncertain future: NASA’s budget currently reflects plans for retirement of the ISS at the end of 2015. The Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee has proposed extension of the ISS until 2020 in three of its five possible scenarios and Congress has directed NASA to take steps to ensure that it remains capable of remaining a viable and productive facility for the United States through at least 2020, but there has not been a commitment yet to continue operations. If not extended, there will be only 5 years between the end of construction in 2010 and ISS retirement in 2015 to utilize the ISS research facilities. Under this deadline, the potential for long-term science and for building a robust ISS user community is limited, the GAO stated.

Decision time: In May 2009, President Obama established the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. In its summary report released in September 2009, the committee developed five options for NASA’s human spaceflight program, and of these options, three recommend extending the lifespan of the ISS until 2020. The committee wrote that it would be unwise to de-orbit the ISS after 25 years of design, development, and assembly and only 5 years of operations, and that the return on investment to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of the ISS’ life. It is unknown at present which option will ultimately be selected, but the future utilization of the ISS depends on this decision.

The GAO report goes on to note that after about 25 years of design, development, and construction, the ISS will be completed in 2010. NASA says once the ISS is finished the ISS crew will be able to focus its efforts on dedicated utilization of the onboard research capabilities. Building the ISS has been a long and costly effort; construction has been under way for over 10 years, and NASA estimates total direct ISS costs to NASA from 1994 to 2010 to be $48.5 billion.

While construction has been a focus of ISS activities, that isn’t to say research hasn’t been ongoing. NASA has identified 197 US-integrated investigations that have been conducted on orbit as of April 2009, though 55 of these investigations were conducted on the Space Shuttle missions to the ISS instead of on the ISS itself. According to NASA, as of February 2009, US ISS and research have resulted in over 160 publications, including articles on topics such as protein crystallization, plant growth, and human research. According to NASA, there have also been approximately 25 technology demonstration experiments flown on the ISS during the assembly phase, the GAO stated.

Meanwhile NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi docked with ISS on Tuesday morning. The group joins NASA astronaut and Expedition 22 Commander Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev. They have been the ISS’ only occupants since Nov. 30. NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis left the day before Thanksgiving.

The group will welcome the next space shuttle, Endeavour, will be carrying 27,000 pound life support module known as Tranquility to the International Space Station. A “room with a view” module known as the Cupola module is also part of the ISS package heading into orbit.

This story, "NASA and space station alliance on shaky ground" was originally published by Network World.

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