NASA’s Space Station Science Web Pages Are Evaporating

By Keith Cowing
March 14, 2006
Filed under
NASA’s Space Station Science Web Pages Are Evaporating

Editor’s note: Up until early 2005 NASA’s web pages were once on a path toward providing an ever-increasing level of detail regarding research activities on the International Space Station (ISS). Links to peer reviewed research and recent results were prominently featured. Not any more. In the past year that noteworthy effort has been reversed such that the amount of information presented (or the public to see at least) is disappearing at an alarming rate.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of the NASA Authorization Act that was signed into law last year. This law requires that a certain percentage of ISS research be dedicated to non-exploration related scientific research – and that the ISS be designated as a national research laboratory. NASA is dragging its feet on this issue. On 8 March 2006, the primary author – and proponent – of this legislation, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said :

“I am concerned that NASA is not counting ALL ISS Research in making their computation to meet the required 15% set-aside for non-Vision-related research. The figures they have provided–$14 million in FY 2006, $12.9 million in FY 07 and $12.8 million in FY 08-would mean the TOTAL ISS research budget is in the neighborhood of $85-100 million per year. That is simply not credible, in a space station annual budget of $1.7 billion in FY 06, $1.8 billion in FY 07 and $2.2 billion in FY 08.”

When you visit NASA’s Human Spaceflight home page and then go to the pull down menu and select space station|science you will see a generic page that hasn’t changed much in several years (last update 26 June 2003). On it you will see the following wording (repeated here since NASA will eventually remove it).

“What in the world are we doing in space? Why spend the time and resources to build a laboratory in space when we have plenty of them on Earth?

The answer is a unique tool called microgravity. Microgravity (also called zero-g) opens a new universe of research possibilities. It unmasks phenomena that gravity on Earth can obscure. Research in microgravity has enabled new insights into what happens inside a fire, how soil grains shift during an earthquake, why certain thick fluids flow easily under pressure, and what is the best way to spray water onto a fire. In this relatively new microgravity environment, experiments continue to yield surprising effects for researchers.

Scientists are putting microgravity to work to understand the growth of proteins as near-perfect crystals (often not possible on Earth), allowing them to decode the protein’s role in health or disease. Cells grown in space can also produce longer-lived cultures to help us understand the growth of tumors and perhaps give insight into how we might control this growth process.

Microgravity also causes subtle changes in the structure and functions of the brain, nerves, muscles, bones, the immune system, and other parts of the body. Studying these may help us improve health care on Earth while protecting the lives of astronauts in space.

NASA began this work in the earliest days of the space program and better understood its potential with research aboard the space shuttle in the 1980s and ’90s. With the International Space Station, researchers from around the world can now conduct experiments that last for months, instead of the two weeks allowed on the space shuttle. And we can keep experiments in space longer, for a quicker follow-up when a scientist says, “Wow! What if I tried this?”

At the bottom of the page are a series of links that point to the same locations they pointed to back in 2005. Alas, many of those locations no longer exist – so you are repeatedly redirected from non-existent NASA websites to another location – the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) home page which has little or no relevant information. Indeed, if you were to visit the ESMD home page first – you might not even know that the U.S. has a space station in orbit in the first place – yet that is where web visitors seeking information on ISS science are being sent. Details follow:

Current Space Station Experiments (last updated: 18 April 2005 – points to Expedition 11 press kit. Expedition 12 is almost complete).

ISS Research Overview (used to point to http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/research_projects/ros/ros.html – a link which now directs you to ESMD’s sparse ISS page)

ISS Science Operation News – points you to a page which is only sporadically updated.

NASA Space Research links you to http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov which then redirects you to the ESMD main home page (last updated 19 September 2005) which has almost nothing of any real value – other than generic NASA spin-off links about “Cancer prevention and treatment, Firefighter safety, Cleaner air and water” For an agency which claims that it is re-focusing its ISS research portfolio toward topics relevant to exploration this is a rather odd list to be featuring.

Research Results links you to http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/research_projects/researchupdate.html which then redirects you to (once again) ESMD’s main home page. Nothing even remotely related to “Research Results” is there – other than the stale spin-off links – certainly not to the level of detail NASA once featured.

Science at NASA – leads you to a MSFC site not under the control of NASA Public Affairs that more or less does its own thing (through some set aside contract) without any PAO oversight. Much of what is on this site has nothing to do with the ISS.

Science Stories – which points you to http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/general_info/art.html which redirects you again to (you guessed it) ESMD’s home page.

Space Research News – which links you to http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/news.html and then redirects you to (drum roll please) ESMD’s home page.

Space Research Press Releases – which links you to http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/general_info/pressrel.html and then bounces you to (I think I see a trend developing folks) ESMD’s home page.

Space Station Science Reports – which links you to http://www.scipoc.msfc.nasa.gov/statuschron.html which does have a semi-regularly updated list of reports.

Teacher Goodies – links you to http://spacelink.nasa.gov/Instructional.Materials/ which bounces you to a page which says “NASA Spacelink has Moved – NASA Spacelink and other information providers across NASA are moving content into the NASA home page. The NASA home page is now the best place to find the type of content you have come to expect from Spacelink. The Spacelink team looks forward to serving you through NASA’s premier Web site.” There is one problem with this: no link is given as to where Spacelink (a useful tool – one of NASA’s very first websites – one that was online since the earliest days of the Internet). Indeed, as far as I can tell Spacelink is no longer online. Instead, links to a series of Education Office pages are offered.

Virtual Astronaut – I am not sure what to make of this since I tried to use it with 3 different browsers (on a Mac) and all I got were ActiveX errors. It looks cool.

When you go to the links at the top of the ISS science pageBioastronautics, Earth Science, Fundamental Biology, Physical Sciences, and Space Product Development — you see a similar pattern of redirection – often to ESMD’s utterly uninformative (as far as ISS – and ISS research goes) home page.

If this research is important enough to prominently feature on NASA’s Space Station home page – so as to explain and justify America’s contribution to this program – don’t visiting taxpayers deserve to know that much of this research has been cancelled as being “no longer necessary”?

I wonder if those Gallup polls Mike Griffin loves to cite would have the same results if those who were questioned were informed that this research has been slashed?

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.