NASA is ready and willing to share the international space station (ISS) with other U.S. government agencies and commercial firms once construction of the $100 billion orbital outpost is finished in 2010.
That is the main thrust of a 14-page report NASA sent to Congress in late May outlining a plan for operating the U.S. segment of ISS as a "national laboratory" supported and used by entities other than NASA.
Congress officially designated the U.S. side of the space station a national lab over a year ago, with passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.
The bill directed NASA to seek new users for the space station and come back within a year with a plan describing how the national lab would be operated.
NASA missed that deadline by five months, but the finished report was nonetheless warmly welcomed by the primary lawmaker behind the ISS-as-national-lab drive, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).
"I am very pleased with the work NASA has completed in preparing this report and implementation plan for operating the international space station as a National Laboratory," Hutchison said in a June 1 press release. "We now have a firm foundation on which to plan for the full and complete use of the space station as it was always intended."
NASA says in the report that the agency would serve as "stewards of this new national laboratory asset" covering the annual cost of maintaining and operating the ISS "as long as the benefits to the nation are justifiable and the agency's ISS operations' budget is reduced to permit both exploration and ISS operations."
NASA says it could foresee letting a nonprofit or some other type of nongovernment entity eventually manage commercial use of the station, but would continue to serve as "the executive agent for other government uses of the ISS."
Jeff Bingham, a senior adviser to Hutchison on space matters, said the report "represents the emergence of a sea change in thinking about the future of the ISS."
Prior to the report, Bingham wrote in a June 3 column for NASAspaceflight.com that NASA had no clear commitment to the space station beyond 2016 and planned to use it solely for research useful to space exploration.
Now, Bingham said, NASA has promised to find out by 2014 what it would take to keep the station up and running beyond its 2016 certified design life and is reporting progress lining up other users.
Still, NASA makes clear that its primary interest in ISS is research that helps expand the boundaries of human space exploration, not solving problems back on Earth.
The report emphasizes that NASA remains "resolute in its plan to employ the ISS, and other spacecraft as they become available, to advance research on human physiology, in order to enable the long duration human space flight missions of the future."
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the NASA Advisory Council, said June 6 that designating the ISS a national lab shows that the United States remains interested in getting a return on its space-station investment.
"NASA, working with the NASA Advisory Council, is discussing with other government users the research they might perform aboard the ISS. Having the ISS designated by the Congress as a national laboratory is intended to support such utilization efforts," Logsdon wrote in a June 6 e-mail. "So while the designation might be more symbolic than representing a major change, it does signal a desire to foster as widespread as possible utilization of this very expensive facility."
The slender report was produced by Mark Uhran, a NASA assistant associate administrator who has long been involved in the agency's efforts to attract commercial users to the space station.
A NASA spokesman said neither Uhran or other officials were free to discuss the report until Congress had a chance to review it and comment.
"All we can really say for now is last week we sent Congress a plan describing how the U.S. segment of the international space station could be used as a national laboratory," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel wrote in a June 4 e-mail. "The report details how the national lab could be operated, potential participation of other parties, and a potential timeline for implementation."
"The idea is that following the station's completion in 2010, NASA would still use it for research that supports missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond," Beutel continued. "But since the station was originally designed to accommodate multiple, concurrent missions, NASA would seek partnerships with other government agencies and commercial companies to use the U.S. segment of the station to pursue research that isn't directly applicable to the NASA mission."
Beutel would not release the report, but an electronic copy of it was posted on NASAspaceflight.com and elsewhere.
In the report, NASA says "initial encounters with U.S. government agencies have been positive relative to their potential use of the ISS," adding that there is "firm interest" from several agencies in using the station for "education, human health related research and defense sciences research."
While no specific new projects are mentioned, NASA says in the report that a December 2006 workshop it held with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify ways to collaborate on space-related health research produced an agreement to draft a memorandum of understanding "that will provide the framework for NIH to encourage use of the ISS as a national laboratory for research in related space and terrestrial physiology such as bone, muscle and immunology."
In addition, the report notes, NASA continues to make the ISS available to the U.S. Defense Department's Space Test Program, which has used the space station and other NASA spacecraft over the years to fly experimental payloads.
The report also notes private-sector interest in using the space station, but says any such use would be kept in check by the continuing high cost of accessing the station and the perceived investment risk of business plans involving a facility that is still not fully assembled.
NASA says it hopes its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which is spending $500 million to foster cheaper transport options for the ISS, will help address the first concern and that time and continued progress building out the station will address the second concern.
One company that appears undaunted by the investment risk is Spacehab, a Houston-based commercial space company that has been struggling amid a reduced space-shuttle flight rate and cut backs on NASA-funded space-station research.
The company announced this spring it intends to turn its financial picture around by pursuing space-based research and manufacturing opportunities.
Spacehab applauded the report.
"This is one of the most exciting and welcome announcements NASA could have made at this time," Thomas B. Pickens, Spacehab's president and chief executive officer, said in a June 6 statement. "As the ISS is nearing completion, NASA's leadership is staying true to the original vision to provide a platform in space for public-private partnerships to promote major advancements, enhancing and even saving lives here on Earth."
Other highlights of the report include:
— NASA's pledge to establish" a small project office within the Space Operations Mission Directorate to work with other U.S. government agencies and the private sector" interested in using ISS.
— NASA's willingness to make available ISS flight hardware that s either already on orbit or has been built and is either awaiting flight or not expected to fly due to budget cut backs.
— Using the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program as a model, "NASA hopes to pursue an analogous opportunity for commercial water production services on the ISS utilizing" a close-loop life support system. NASA issued a "sources sought" announcement for such a system in January.