The chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space,
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), wants to find a way to ensure that research
on board the International Space Station (ISS) fulfills many of the
promises that have been made for it over the years. While supportive
of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, at an April 20 hearing
she stated her commitment "to ensuring that the investment we have
made as a nation in the International Space Station is rewarded to the
greatest extent possible by the fulfillment of the purposes for which
it has been designed.... This important, impressive facility cannot
be allowed to be used simply as a tool for Moon and Mars exploration-related
research," she declared. "This facility is capable of doing
much more for our nation...and we must ensure that we make the maximum
use of its capabilities." As input to her preparations for a NASA
reauthorization bill, she probed witnesses for suggestions on management
models that might let the U.S. continue with a broad range of research
objectives for the station.
Marcia Smith of the Congressional Research Service reviewed the station's
history since it was originally proposed by President Reagan in 1984.
She noted that when the program began, it was expected to serve eight
separate functions: as a laboratory; a permanent Earth and space observatory;
a transportation node; a facility for servicing, assembling, manufacturing,
and storing components, payloads and vehicles; and a staging base for
future missions. Under the first President Bush, the station was downsized
and limited to one remaining role, a laboratory in space. Further rounds
of downsizing and cost-cutting followed under Presidents Bush and Clinton.
In 1993 the Russians joined the international partnership, and in 1998
the first two elements were launched. After taking office in 2001, the
second President Bush cancelled three major U.S. elements, including
the Crew Return Vehicle, reduced the research budget, and called for
a reprioritization of the research program by the Research Maximization
and Prioritization (ReMaP) Task Force. Then, in his Vision for Space
Exploration, announced in January of last year, the President stated
that "we will focus our future research aboard the station on the
long-term effects of space travel on human biology." The full extent
of the impact of President Bush's vision on the utilization of the ISS
"is not clear yet," Smith said. "What is known,"
she added, is that "the scope of research would be narrowed,"
there would be "fewer years during which NASA would conduct research,"
and "the shuttle would not be available" to support scientific
operations after the station is completed.
In prepared testimony, William Readdy, NASA's Associate Administrator
for Space Operations, stated that "U.S. research activities aboard
the Station will be focused to support the new exploration goals."
He informed the subcommittee that "NASA is currently in the process
of focusing and prioritizing International Space Station research and
technology development efforts on areas that best contribute to the
Vision." He continued, "In order to best utilize limited resources,
NASA is phasing out some activities that do not directly support the
Vision...and reallocating resources to the higher priority areas."
Readdy reported that, prior to President Bush's announcement of the
new exploration goals, NASA had studied possible management options
for long-term ISS utilization. But, he said, those studies were suspended
after Bush's announcement.
Hutchison asked for the preliminary findings of these studies, to aid
her in preparing a reauthorization bill for the space agency. She and
other subcommittee members questioned the witnesses about possible management
models for long-term ISS research, the prospects for private investment,
the most appropriate types of research, and U.S. access to the station
after the shuttle is retired. Some management options mentioned included
designating the ISS a national laboratory, operating it as a federally-funded
R&D center or a research institute, or management by consortium.
While stating that a balanced, overall program of science, exploration
and aeronautics must "capitalize on the unique testbed" offered
by the ISS, Jeffrey Sutton of the National Space Biomedical Research
Institute cautioned that NASA must be "more selective in the types
of experiments flown" on the station. He urged decisionmakers to
ask, "What can only be done on the space station?"
"Selecting which experiments get to fly" is a significant
challenge, agreed Mary Ellen Weber of the University of Texas, Southwest
Medical Center. This can only be determined, she said, by first deciding
what the station's mission is: Is it intended to be a conduit for private-sector
commercialization of products? Or is it intended to serve the national
interest, by supporting the space exploration initiative, for example?
She highlighted two areas of research that she thought would reap substantial
rewards for private investors: the growth of human tissue outside the
body, and the growth of protein crystals to advance drug design based
on the structures of protein molecules. Weber, whose past work at NASA
included efforts to attract private investment to space research, offered
a number of "lessons learned." The space agency must make
"a paradigm shift," she said, and begin to take the responsibility
for surveying the marketplace, identifying a compelling market need,
ensuring a specific source of revenue, and developing a business plan,
rather than "put[ting] the onus on investors."