Grading CASIS On its ISS National Laboratory Performance Thus Far

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NASA has been talking about the research and commercial potential of the space station since the 1980s. As such, Congress has also heard presentations from NASA for decades. Research has been conducted on Skylab, the Space Shuttle (Spacelab), Salyut/Mir, Russian free-flying satellites, and the International Space Station. Lots of people doing lots of research for a long time. As such, you would think that Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) would have had a leg up on how to perform its tasks with regard to the ISS National Laboratory given this long history of research and planning. Indeed, CASIS should have been able to hit the ground running the moment their cooperative agreement with NASA was signed.

In some ways Congressional designation of the ISS as a "national laboratory" was meant to enhance its stature. But that distinction has been totally lost amidst continuing political manipulation by Congress, local Florida politics and hiring practices, and internal rivalries at NASA. No one at NASA really wanted CASIS - Congressional staffers and their easily manipulated bosses forced it upon NASA. So when CASIS won the contract no one quite knew what to do with them. To complete this dysfunctional three variable equation, CASIS really had no idea what it was doing either. They still don't.

After floundering with confusing management and lots of political hires, CASIS ran into a wall and needed a managerial reboot. Following that reboot (after its executive director quit in frustration) there was a small spark of sorts. But the PR flurry has failed to be met with a commensurate level of actual accomplishment - based on what has been publicly discussed and released to date, that is.

According to an article in Florida Today regarding a hastily-arranged media opportunity by CASIS last week: "[CASIS Interim Chief Scientist Dr. Timothy] Yeatman led a panel of scientists in reviewing more than 135 biological experiments NASA flew in space over a decade. Of that batch, he said, there were "no real standouts" that definitively proved commercial opportunities."

In a letter to NASA on 28 March 2012 describing its progress to date, CASIS said: "An Interim Scientific Collegium (ISC) has been created and is in operation. ISC analyzed 132 ISS experiments, identified pathways that are most promising and facilitate a shorter; Three major pathways identified, with subpathways defined, based on market place analysis; Outreach has been initiated to marketplace customers with near-term potential for flight programs in the pathways of interest."

An article on this press briefing in Space News says "While CASIS plans a strong focus on life science and medical research, it will also look to use ISS as a technology test bed for products that are either close to commercialization or already commercialized, said Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator for science CASIS recently brought onboard as chief science adviser."

There seems to be a big contradiction here. If there were "no real standouts" then it would seem that CASIS is not going to have any quick successes in terms of commercializing biotech research on the ISS. This does not synch with NASA's hype for the past several decades for research on on ISS and before that aboard the Space Shuttle. Nor does it synch with the CASIS intent to focus on "products that are either close to commercialization or already commercialized".

Biological experiments have been flown in space for a lot longer than a decade. Several decades would be more accurate - and the U.S. is not the only country that has been flying them. Given a lack of obvious space-related expertise among the members of the CASIS Biological Sciences Review Panel and no information on the specific experiments CASIS reviewed (or who selected them) its hard to determine how rigorous this review was.

At the time the CASIS biotech panel was announced a bit of totally unsubstantiated hype was included in the press release: "The panel, led by Timothy Yeatman, a veteran surgeon, scientist and pioneer in the fields of genomics and personalized medicine, is the first of its kind. The effort marks the first high-level international scientific review of NASA experiments with the aim of maximizing use of the station and unlocking the value of America's investment in the $100 billion orbiting platform." Yea right. NASA never thought to do this before.

Where are the space research experts? This is a totally bogus claim - and the phrase "first high-level international scientific review" is as baffling as it is inaccurate. With one exception, the reviewers are all from American institutions. And if only 135 experiments were reviewed then CASIS did not really look too hard at the extensive body of published research reaching back to the 1950s.

The CASIS panel was announced on 22 March 2012 with the intent to "present its findings and recommendations on the next steps for commercialization to NASA management early next month". That would have been early April. That means NASA has been sitting on this for a month - assuming that CASIS delivered it on-time (they have been late on everything else).

According to CASIS, their biotech panel has been at work since January 2012 (in secret it would seem since CASIS has made no prior mention). Without any further information on what was reviewed (and excluded), what metrics were used for the review, how the review was conducted, etc., we're just going to have to wait and see what CASIS reports to NASA - assuming the public will be allowed to see the result of this review, that is.

Despite the focus on biotech, there are (hopefully) many more potential research and commercial applications to be realized on the ISS. Given that CASIS has not announced the membership its panels for these other disciplines i.e. physics, chemistry, microgravity materials processing, information technology, engineering etc. one has to assume that those efforts are yet to get underway (or are being done in secret). Or is the "Interim Scientific Collegium (ISC)" that CASIS says reviewed the biotech experiments also reviewing other research results as well?

CASIS has stated that it will be "issuing formal solicitations beginning in June for space research projects for osteoporosis, muscle wasting, immune system compromise, antigenicity and protein crystallization." But no mention has been made with regard to a similar request for all of the other research disciplines one would expect to be performed on the ISS.

In its 28 March letter to NASA CASIS says "The following are key elements of performance that we will report on at the end of the initial first two quarters of operation." Given that CASIS announced that it had finalized is Cooperative Agreement with NASA on 9 September 2011, "two quarters" (usually interpreted as 6 months) expired on 9 March 2012. So ... where is this report?

In summary: CASIS has conduced a review of 135 biological experiments - a review that no one has seen; may or may not have reviews underway for other disciplines; owes NASA a progress report; plans to issue a formal solicitation for biotech experiments; and is co-sponsor of a conference with NASA and the AAS on all of this in June.

In a hearing held on 22 March 2012, Rep. Wolf suggested that NASA needs to look at CASIS carefully saying "if they are not with it in 30-45 days we should pull it and give it to NSF". NASA Administrator Bolden replied that a letter was being sent to CASIS to remind them of their milestones and "if they they do not meet milestones we will find another way"."

Clearly the clock is ticking. Given CASIS' chronic tardiness and lack of performance thus far, by the end of June NASA and Congress will either know a lot more about what CASIS has been doing and plans to do with the ISS - or they'll be asking if it is time to pull the plug on this half-hearted management experiment and try again.

Meanwhile, this amazing facility orbits overhead while its return on investment diminishes with every single day that it continues to be underutilized.

Previous NASA Watch postings on CASIS


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