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FYI Number 86: July 25, 2002

Task Force Questions Scientific Value of Scaled-Back Space Station

"If enhancements to ISS beyond 'US Core Complete' are not anticipated, NASA should cease to characterize the ISS as a science driven program." - REMAP Task Force

A task force of distinguished scientists, asked to review and prioritize the research objectives of NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR), concluded that the U.S. Core Complete configuration of the International Space Station (ISS) is not worthy of being considered a science program. NASA is currently focusing its resources on finishing construction of the scaled- back three-person core station; if the assembly is successful and cost and management problems overcome, NASA and the Administration will consider whether to expand the station's capabilities beyond this configuration. In a report that is likely to be used by station critics, the task force warned that if NASA does not enhance facilities, available crew time, and shuttle capacity for ISS research, OBPR will be unlikely to achieve much of its highest priority research.

The Research Maximization and Prioritization (REMAP) Task Force was charged by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe in March with evaluating research priorities and productivity for the OBPR portfolio, which includes space station research, and providing advice on "how to achieve the greatest progress in high-priority research." Due to time constraints, the task force examined only the existing OBPR research programs, and relied on prior assessments of specific research areas. Task Force chair Rae Silver of Columbia University presented the group's report to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) on July 10. The Advisory Council will review the findings and recommendations of the REMAP report, and prepare its recommendations for O'Keefe later in the summer.

The task force, comprising 20 scientists from relevant disciplines, found that the current OBPR organization is not optimal for identifying and focusing on the highest priority research areas or multidisciplinary questions that span research areas. It recommends that OBPR's research portfolio "be built around the most important scientific problems relevant to the NASA mission on the ISS, rather than covering representative sub- fields of science." The task force reviewed OBPR research without regard to platform (shuttle, free flyer, ground-based or ISS) and determined that the highest priority OBPR research falls into one or both of two broad categories: enabling research for human exploration of space, and research with intrinsic scientific value. Then, in each of the broad fields of medical, biological and physical sciences, it ranked each specific research area as either first, second, third or fourth priority, or "consider termination." The report acknowledges that strategic planning within OBPR has historically been difficult because of budget instability and unpredictability of flight access.

The issues that appeared to place the greatest constraints on achieving top priority OBPR research were available crew time on the Core Complete ISS configuration, and the capacity of the shuttle to deliver the necessary equipment and resources to the station. How much these factors will impact station research is unknown at this time; discussion at the July 10 meeting indicated a need for further analysis on which research priorities can be conducted on other platforms, how ISS research can be phased over time, and the actual availability of crew and shuttle capacity. However, based on its concerns, the task force states that the U.S. Core Complete version of the station should not be characterized "as a science driven program." It does not make a similar recommendation with respect to the "U.S. plus I.P. [International Partners] Core Complete" configuration, although it expresses similar concerns regarding crew and shuttle availability. The task force recommends that NASA "ensure appropriate funding for implementation of high priority facilities," such as a centrifuge and plant and animal habitats. The report urges that, as ISS construction nears completion, NASA designate one crew member as "science officer" and dedicate at least one-third of the crew time to research operations.

Among the report's additional recommendations are several addressing the science community for OBPR and its selection of research projects. It suggests that OBPR "consider alternative methods for research solicitation" beyond strictly peer-review, to better support "goal-oriented, need-driven" research. It warns that there are too few graduate students and top quality scientists participating in OBPR research due to "the lack of predictable, frequent, and timely access to flight opportunities" and the lack of "a stable funding base." It notes that "research funds have been diverted a total of four times to cover engineering overruns," and calls on NASA to "assure science as a priority commitment with regard to flight schedule and project funding."

At the July 10 presentation, there seemed to be some confusion over the role and purview of the REMAP Task Force. While an earlier task force on ISS cost and management, led by NAC member Thomas Young (FYI #136, 2001), had called for prioritization of space station research to help determine the desired final configuration, REMAP was asked to review the entire OBPR program. REMAP was charged with evaluating OBPR science "to maximize the research return within the available resources in the President's FY 2003 Budget...with an emphasis on establishing the research content for the ISS US Core Complete configuration (FYI #48, 2002)." However, Silver reported that O'Keefe had instructed the panel not to consider "facility constraints" in its prioritization.

Young and fellow Advisory Committee member John Glenn voiced concerns that the task force report could provide ammunition to critics of the ISS program; Glenn called its implications for political support "dynamite." Noting that his task force considered the ISS Core Complete configuration a viable - if not optimal - end state, Young questioned whether the REMAP findings and preliminary estimates of crew and shuttle availability implied that, if the station were not to be enhanced beyond U.S. Core Complete, the project should be terminated. In the discussion that followed, it was pointed out that not all top priority research needed to be conducted on the station, that research goals could be spread out over time, and that NASA was working to improve crew time and shuttle capacity to support ISS research. When pressed, Silver acknowledged that, if the station was not going to be enhanced beyond the U.S. core configuration and insufficient shuttle space would be available for scientific experiments and supplies, perhaps termination should be considered as one option. She did not advocate this course of action, however.

In a press release, O'Keefe responded to the REMAP panel's report: "[T]his is a challenge. It is the first time NASA has attempted to prioritize its research objectives across multiple disciplines into a comprehensive and fully integrated research strategy.... I look forward to the final recommendations of the NASA Advisory Council and working with the entire science community to reap the full benefits of this Agency's space-based research portfolio." An Executive Summary of the REMAP report is available at http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/general_info/remap.html
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