Testimony of Dr. James Pawelczyk at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Hearings: "International Space Station"


Given at a Science, Technology, and Space Hearing:
International Space Station
Wednesday, October 29 2003 - 2:00 PM - SR- 253
The Testimony of Dr. James Pawelczyk, Associate Professor of Physiology and Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Good afternoon. I thank you for the opportunity to discuss the progress that NASA has made in strengthening research on board the International Space Station. I have been a life sciences researcher for 20 years, including my work as a payload specialist astronaut, or guest researcher, on the STS-90 Neurolab Spacelab mission, which flew on the space shuttle Columbia in 1998. I am a standing member of NASA's Life Sciences Advisory Subcommittee, and last year I served as a member of the Research Maximization and Prioritization (ReMAP) Taskforce.

My area of expertise is blood pressure regulation. Without the nervous and cardiovascular systems that are so uniquely tuned to humans, none of us would be leaving our chairs today without passing out. Similar problems affect up to 500,000 Americans, and develop in as many as 70% of astronauts after spaceflight. Nationwide, only a handful of laboratories are capable of studying this problem by inserting microelectrodes in humans to record signals from nerve fibers, or by measuring the release of neurotransmitters from nerve terminals. Five-years ago, we made the space shuttle one of those laboratories. I offer you personal testament, and the incredible success of the Neurolab mission, as evidence that cutting-edge research can be performed in space.

Based on the favorable response from the scientific community toward Neurolab, Congress authorized preliminary funding to develop another research mission, which became STS-107. Like the rest of the NASA family, I lost friends and colleagues on February 1, 2003. We owe the crew of STS-107 our very best efforts to assure that their dedication, their sense of mission, will continue.

Translational research: the goal of the ISS

A popular "buzzword" in the biological research community has been the word "translational." In this context, research elucidates molecular and genetic mechanisms, and scales, or translates, these principles to larger and more complex structures. In the life sciences, translational research spans the distance from molecular biology to medicine, with the steps of cell biology, organismal biology, and integrative physiology lying somewhere between. It's a journey of discovery from small to large; from studying a single process in isolation to a large organism where many processes interact. Complexity exists at each and every step along the path, illuminated by techniques that let us see further, and with greater clarity.

A corollary to this description is that single experiments rarely, if ever, change the course of science. A robust research program includes all elements of translational research, delivering the fruits of the lab bench to everyone. Translational research is the "gold standard" of the NIH, and it is what the research community, and the American people, should expect from the ISS.

The challenge of simultaneous operations and construction

While I was training for STS-90 in 1996 and 1997 I learned of NASA's plan to provide an early science capability on board the ISS. The simple analogy is moving into a house while it is still under construction; although it's possible, it's not optimal. At the time I wondered about the wisdom of this decision, but in hindsight I must agree that it was a sensible, albeit challenging, approach to provide rapid return on taxpayer investment. It was a calculated gamble that left NASA open to criticism. As research hours began to accumulate, some scientific groups complained vociferously that the research on the ISS was neither "world class" nor "cutting edge." ISS costs were creeping out of control, culminating in a $981 million realignment of research funding from the Office of Biological and Physical Research to the Office of Spaceflight for continued ISS construction. Fiscal accounting was cumbersome, and research success was in jeopardy.

The ISS Management and Cost Evaluation (IMCE) Task Force chaired by Tom Young was a direct response to these problems. The most important impact to the scientific community was the proposal of a "core complete" configuration that controlled near-term costs by reducing the ISS crew complement from 6-7 to 3 and postponing or eliminating the infrastructure necessary to support the larger crew. The IMCE Task Force further recommended that NASA constitute a review group to prioritize the remaining ISS resources for the best research possible. To return to the building analogy, some bedrooms were deleted, other rooms were left partially finished, and NASA needed to get the house inspected before the money ran out.

The ReMAP Process

In response to the IMCE report, NASA adopted the core complete milepost and launched the Research Maximization and Prioritization Task Force, commonly known as ReMAP, in the spring and summer and 2002. Chaired by Rae Silver of Columbia University, the Task Force included two National Medal of Science awardees, one Nobel prize winner, and more than a dozen members of the National Academy of Sciences, representing the full breadth of translational research in the biological and physical sciences.

ReMAP affirmed two broad, often overlapping, top priorities for the type of research that should be conducted on board the International Space Station. Both are consistent with the historical mission of NASA. One is the category of intrinsic scientific importance or impact, research that will illuminate our place in the universe, and the nature of that universe at the most fundamental levels. In the other category we valued research that enables human exploration of space, the logical outgrowth of the National Aeronautics and Space Exploration Act of 1958. It should be no surprise to you that over the past 15 years other review panels, both internal and external to NASA, have named similar goals. What was unique to ReMAP was our challenge to consider both the physical sciences and biological sciences simultaneously. This resulted in spirited debate and intellectual foment of the highest caliber.

The ReMAP Task Force, in my opinion, was well constituted. Despite some dissent, the vast majority of participants supported our primary recommendation:

"If enhancements to ISS beyond 'US core complete' are not anticipated, NASA should cease to characterize the ISS as a science driven program."

The ISS, would not be, in the Task Force's opinion, a world-class science facility.

Three constraints led us to this conclusion: The first was up-mass: a shuttle schedule of four flights per year, as proposed by the IMCE for cost containment, was simply not sufficient to carry the equipment and research samples necessary to sustain a translational research program while assembling and maintaining the ISS. The second was power on the shuttle: Some experiments, such as those that utilize animal surrogates, require power while they are transported to the space station. An insufficient amount of powered space was available. Finally, there was the issue of crew time. Normal space station operations were estimated to require the full time effort of approximately 2-1/2 crewmembers, leaving just 20 person-hours per week available for research.

Progress since ReMAP

The ReMAP report was well received, and NASA is using it as a blueprint for changing ISS research. Since the Task Force's conclusion in June of 2002, NASA has made excellent progress in the areas of management and prioritization that will optimize research on the ISS. In September 2002, the NASA Advisory Council endorsed NASA’s response to ReMAP.

At that time no federal agency ranked worse than NASA on the Executive Branch's Management Scorecard. Today, only 10 of 27 agencies rank better overall. People in this agency understand the need to improve, and they're responding. The NASA culture is evolving, in favor of safety and science. Allow me to cite a few examples:

First, several low priority research efforts have been descoped or eliminated, and unfunded, higher priority items have received Phase I funding. Most notable is the restoration of limited funding for the core of the Advanced Animal Habitat, which houses mice and rats for microgravity and variable gravity research. These habitats can be mounted on the life sciences centrifuge, scheduled for delivery in FY07 or FY08, and will provide for the first time in human history the ability to study the long-term effects of fractional (moon or Mars-like) microgravity conditions on a variety of biological organisms.

Second, integrative research has been revitalized, including renewed collaboration with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. A Joint Working Group meeting is taking place in Moscow today and tomorrow. Within NASA, a joint Cell Sciences and Genomics Council has been formed between the Physical Sciences and Fundamental Space Biology Divisions of OBPR to coordinate genomic and cell biology research. The need for such coordination is acute. Recent cell culture experiments by Timothy Hammond at Tulane University suggest that the activity of more than 15% of the human genome changes during microgravity exposure. This is not just a simple statistic; it's a profound demonstration that gravity alters gene expression of cells, which must affect our basic structure and composition. We’ve barely begun to explore what these changes mean. This is a research area where biology, physical sciences, and informatics naturally blend, and NASA's problem-based approach is a model for NIH and NSF to emulate.

Third, research that can be done without reliance on the shuttle has been relocated to other platforms in a renewed effort of international collaboration and cooperation. A biological version of the hitchhiker payload experiments has been developed, which can be placed on Progress or Foton rockets. This move alone reduces the backlog of flight experiments in the Fundamental Space Biology Division of OBPR by more than 25%.

Fourth, NASA is working proactively to reduce the time required to prepare an ISS scientific payload for flight. Earlier this year NASA constituted a Station and Shuttle Utilization and Reinvention Team. Comprised of representatives of the scientific community and senior management from seven NASA centers, this group was tasked with developing a set of recommendations that strengthen NASA's emphasis on the research community and remove impediments to ISS utilization. The eight top recommendations, which will be implemented in coming months, represent an enlightened view that puts research investigators in direct contact with payload developers, engineers, and ISS crewmembers. The investigator is the customer, and NASA has taken a crash course in customer service.

Fifth, the program of ground-based research has been reinvigorated, with no less than 7 solicitations for research proposals in the life and microgravity sciences announced in FY03. The final complement of proposals will depend on funding of the Human Research Initiative that is part of the President’s FY04 budget submission to Congress.

Sixth, the seeds of a science-driven culture are being sown at every level of the Agency. A Deputy Associate Administrator for Science has been established in the Office of Biological and Physical Research. The ISS now has a full-time program scientist on the ground who represents the research community on issues related to ISS budget, construction, and maintenance. A crew science officer, currently Ed Lu, takes ownership for the science experiments in-flight. Satisfaction of the research community is to become part of the performance plan of all Associate Administrators, Center Directors, and the ISS and Shuttle Program Managers. The message is simple and powerful: throughout NASA, science deserves a seat at the table.

Challenges for the future

I am pleased with NASA’s recent efforts to increase science productivity, and Sean O'Keefe and his senior management deserve credit for their leadership during such trying times. The international partners have helped NASA continue its flight research programs despite the shuttle stand down, and they are to be applauded for their commitment. The ISS program has concluded that at least five shuttle flights can be supported with a three-orbiter fleet, which should ameliorate the upmass constraint identified by ReMAP. Estimates for crew time available to conduct research continue to hover at 10 hours per week, and this situation needs to be corrected. The assembly complete configuration, which supports a six-person crew, should increase research time by an order of magnitude or more.

If there's one type of technology that is revolutionizing biology today, it is imaging technology. Fluorescent tags permit us to visualize the movement of ions in living cells, computerized tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, and ultrasound allow us to reconstruct deep anatomy with unprecedented detail, and magnetic and electron spin resonance spectroscopy allow us to track the flux of energy and molecules in living systems. NASA-funded researchers employ all of these techniques, but investigators and the American public need better access to this imagery when such approaches are used in space. The goal should be remote operation of experiments by ground investigators, concurrent with preparation of samples by trained astronauts in space, and real-time delivery of images that are sure to inspire and educate the American public much like the Hubble Space Telescope has done.

We need to embellish translational research on the ISS, and one example stands out. Osteoporosis afflicts astronauts at rates 10 times greater than post-menopausal women. Using astronauts as human subjects, research now being conducted on the ISS will determine stresses in the hip, a common location for osteoporosis. In December 2003, NASA will host a subgroup discussion at the American Society of Cell Biology to discuss the mechanisms by which cells sense mechanical force. NASA’s celebrated bioreactor program, a revolutionary way to culture cells, is sure to be a part of this conference. Working from both the “beginning” and “end,” these efforts make serious headway on a path of translational research. But we need to fill in the missing pieces by extrapolating the cell and human findings to reference organisms and mammalian models such as mice and rats. We need the capability to house these organisms on the ISS and that's expected within five years. But equally important, we need time for crew members to prepare and conduct these experiments, and that time can be found only when the ISS moves beyond the core complete configuration. The potential return is immense; the application of this research to our aging public could become one of the most important justifications for an International Space Station.

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, given sufficient resources, I am convinced that NASA will deliver the rigorous translational research program that the scientific community expects, and the American people deserve. I sincerely thank you for your vigilant support of the nation's space program, and the opportunity to appear before you today.

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