June 25, 2012
Frank Morring, Jr./Washington
While NASA astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are fully booked with scientific and engineering research for now, most of that work has involved projects the U.S. space agency is funding to advance the skills and technology it will need to explore deeper into the Solar System.
Still to come is research “in the national interest” that, in theory, is open to all comers under a “U.S. National Laboratory” concept ordered by Congress in 2005, when NASA and its partners were in the throes of actually building the facility in orbit.
Hoping to broaden use of the ISS beyond NASA's traditional community of space scientists and aerospace engineers, lawmakers stipulated that NASA find and hire an independent nonprofit organization to operate the National Lab. Last year Space Florida—the aerospace economic development agency of the state hardest hit by job cuts associated with the space shuttle retirement—won NASA's competition for the non-governmental organization (NGO)role with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) that it set up to bid for the work. William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations, selected Casis from a field that included the Battelle Memorial Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Essentially, Casis's job is to make it as simple as possible for researchers to place their experiments on the space station, and to reach out to nontraditional industries—and investors—to proselytize the potential benefits of microgravity research. But the Casis launch has been hampered by bureaucratic infighting that led, on Feb. 29, to the resignation of Jeanne L. Becker as the first executive director.
A cancer researcher who worked with early cell-culture experiments on the ISS, Becker complained that a Pennsylvania consulting company—ProOrbis— drafted both the NASA reference model for the National Lab and the Space Florida proposal to run the lab, and later “wrote themselves into the proposal as prime source for Casis organizational oversight and integration,” according to her letter of resignation.
Becker, who declined to be interviewed for this article, blamed “undue and onerous political pressures” and “unrealistic expectations” by congressional staffers, NASA's ISS division director, Mark Uhran, and ProOrbis for hampering Casis's startup operations.
“If expecting the winner to honor their proposal is unrealistic, then that's my unrealistic expectation,” says Uhran, adding that he requested a NASA Inspector General audit of Casis. That review is ongoing.