Status Report

Democrats Emphasize the Need for a Clear Plan for Utilization of the International Space Station

By SpaceRef Editor
March 28, 2012
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Today the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled, “Securing the Promise of the ISS – Challenges and Opportunities.” The purpose of the hearing was to review NASA’s plans for effectively maintaining and utilizing the International Space Station (ISS) through 2020, including how the agency will deal with resource and access constraints that limit the scientific utilization of the ISS. Testifying before the Committee were Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Ms. Cristina Chaplain, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO); and Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, USAF (Ret)., Chairman of the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

The ISS is an unprecedented technological and political achievement to conceive, plan, build, operate, and utilize a large, multinational, research and operations facility in space. It is the culmination of more than two decades of effort by the U.S. and its Canadian, European, Japanese, and later, its Russian partners. Including its solar arrays, the ISS spans the area of a U.S. football field and weighs over 860,000 pounds. With the completion of the ISS’s assembly in May 2011, the U.S. has a test bed for learning how to live and work in space over extended periods of time as well as a unique research facility capable of significant basic and applied scientific research. The ISS is the closest analogue for testing life support systems and other technologies to ensure they work in space and are reliable. A journey to Mars will require such robust systems. The Station is intended to support three main activities: scientific research, technology development, and development of industrial applications. It is also used for educational outreach.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her opening statement, “While the road to its completion has been a long one, with many twists and turns along the way, the ISS stands as one of the engineering marvels of the modern age, and a testament to American ingenuity and perseverance. There is a lot one could say about the ISS, but I think the citation that accompanied the award to the ISS team of the 2009 Collier Trophy–one of the aerospace profession’s premier awards–sums up what has been accomplished. That is, “the design, development, and assembly in space of the world’s largest spacecraft, an orbiting laboratory, promising new discoveries for mankind and setting new standards for international cooperation in space.”

She continued, “I would go further, and also note that 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.”

Congress has provided direction to NASA to focus and plan for ISS’s full utilization in terms of research and applications. The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the ISS as a national laboratory and directed NASA to seek increased utilization of the ISS for research by including other federal entities and the private sector through partnerships, cost sharing, and other arrangements. The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 required NASA to develop a Research Management Plan to be used to prioritize research activities and resources. And the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 extended the mission of the ISS by a minimum of 5 years, from 2015 to at least October 2020.

In his written statement for the hearing, Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Jerry F. Costello (D-IL) said, “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.”

Ranking Member Johnson agreed with that assessment, and she emphasized the importance of making the best use possible of the ISS over the remainder of its service life, “I understand the importance of trying to maintain uninterrupted access to the ISS, and I know that we will hear testimony today on some of the challenges in doing so. However, we should not forget that the purpose of cargo and crew transportation systems is to support the utilization of the ISS, not as ends in themselves. The reality is that the ISS is a perishable commodity, and “the future is now” in terms of utilizing this unique facility. While some may hope to extend its agreed-upon service life past 2020, we need to make sure that the 8 years that remain till the current end of the ISS program are used effectively to answer the research and engineering questions that can only be answered on the ISS. In short, we need clear, prioritized and integrated utilization plans from NASA, and we need to be assured that those plans are being carried out, both by NASA and by the independent ISS research management organization, CASIS, that was set up for that purpose.”

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SpaceRef staff editor.