ELMS White Paper: Comment and Endorsement of the NRC "Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station"

Status Report From: Exploration Life & Medical Sciences (ELMS) Coalition
Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2006


Exploration Life and Medical Sciences Coalition White Paper
Comment and Endorsement of the NRC "Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station" (NRC Review of NASA Strategic Roadmaps: Space Station Panel)

In October, 2005 the National Research Council assembled an expert panel for a "Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station." For this congressionally-mandated review, NASA supplied the best available information. Nevertheless, the NRC Panel noted, with discontent, that the information was superficial (mostly viewgraphs) and incomplete. Also alarming was that these were the actual datasets used by NASA for making key funding and prioritization decisions within the agency. The NRC panel concluded that NASA's decisions are seriously flawed; the Panel made numerous, specific recommendations to correct them.

The Panel found that the revised activities and priorities for ISS negate the initial intent of the ISS, reduce the ability of the ISS to advance technology, and preclude using the only manned platform available in the next several decades to develop needed mitigations for space-based risks to human health and performance, a critical priority for the Exploration Vision. Originally, the ISS was to provide high quality solutions for the fundamental problems that humans will encounter during and after long duration space missions. But, NASA's current plans re-direct the focus to only some short-term issues. This will eliminate many Exploration-applied investigations needed to go beyond the Lunar sortie mission and adds significant risk to the safety and success of the exploration vision.

The Exploration Vision, presented by President Bush, suggested changes in the paradigm by which NASA operated, in part to improve the safety culture that prevailed for both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. The President explicitly pointed toward long-term value creation with new and efficient operational capabilities and efficiencies that align with the priorities recommended in the NRC report:

"Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station by 2010. We will finish what we have started, we will meet our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project. We will focus our future research aboard the station on the long-term effects of space travel on human biology. The environment of space is hostile to human beings. Radiation and weightlessness pose dangers to human health, and we have much to learn about their long-term effects before human crews can venture through the vast voids of space for months at a time. Research on board the station and here on Earth will help us better understand and overcome the obstacles that limit exploration. Through these efforts we will develop the skills and techniques necessary to sustain further space exploration."

"The vision I outline today is a journey, not a race..." and the president discusses and refers to this "journey" throughout the definition of the Exploration Vision.

But NASA quickly redefined and reformulated the program into another race for near-term achievements and early milestones rather than a structured development of long-term value.

Our nation is now on a new path leading to an "Apollo mission on steroids", devoid of key research and technology developments that the NRC report reiterates are critical for human exploration of space. By following this path, the nation forfeits a $100B infrastructure of space assets as well as an equivalent value in assets within university, government, and industry sectors. For example,

Imagine one decade from now: Having aborted the key capabilities of the ISS and terminated its national funding, we will need innovative systems for long-duration missions. Shall we then embark on the initial developments of Mars transit and surface technologies? The NRC has reiterated that significant new technologies and human health countermeasures are required to sustain humans in a microgravity space environment. Will NASA then request from congress and the American public a new ISS, new closed loop life support, other developments that we are now cancelling? We echo and endorse the NRC's call for a coherent, responsible, forwardlooking plan for pursuing the exploration initiative. The NRC report tactfully but clearly states that NASA's current plans are insufficient to meet the needs of an exploration program. Risk-based criteria and analyses are missing from the assessments and planning. There is an inordinate focus on development of a CEV by 2011 and a lunar sortie mission in 2018. Absent are research goals to enable long-range Exploration goals were provided to the panel. Absent are concerns or plans for the long-duration tests and microgravity investigations necessary to validate exploration mission architecture and vehicle designs. The ISS is the only long duration platform planned in the Exploration architecture and it will be defunded by NASA by 2017. We have already learned from ISS experiences that long duration testing and validation are needed for many systems including the life support systems. How will NASA test long duration operation of such equipment in microgravity once ISS is not available? This is one of the major holes in the current plans.

The NRC report specifically states that "briefers [of the NRC panel] stated explicitly the no activity was completed that attempted to prioritize individual experiments in the current payload portfolio in relation to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate research and technology requirements". More than 10 times in the NRC report, NASA was criticized for not aligning current decisions with their own Exploration priorities. Thus, hundreds of millions of dollars of national assets in programs, system capabilities, and valuable intellectual property are being cancelled without proper rationale and decision process. In fact, the NRC panel suggests that several of the cancelled assets be recovered in three places, the NRC specifically states that animal research aboard ISS should be reinstated.

In summary, NASA's new plan to abandon the ISS as a intensive research platform, and to shift instead to near-term goals at the expense of long-term success and risk mitigation is reminiscent of the agency culture which was the basis of the Challenger and Columbia accidents. As supporters of the Vision for Exploration and of long-term success of NASA as an agency, we strongly support a moratorium on the abandoning core ISS activities, for these are essential in the development of infrastructure that can support a safe and valuable extension of human presence into the solar system, an activity that will also create significant value to the humans on Earth.

The NRC review of the ISS provided a laudable set of insightful and compelling recommendations, both specific and general:

  • ISS should be focused on validation of technologies, mitigation of crew health issues, and demonstrate operations for the long-term goals of the exploration vision well before Lunar Outpost and Mars missions
  • Risk-based priorities for the long duration missions should be set high without abandoning specific key capabilities such as increasing the crew on ISS and animal-based research aboard ISS
  • Life support and environmental control technologies need long duration development and testing aboard ISS prior to use on Lunar Outpost or Mars Mission which must occur prior to defunding of the ISS
  • NASA's scientific and biomedical plans for ISS utilization, in addition to the infrastructure and technology development and testing for Exploration priorities, should have independent review by which NASA is held accountable.
  • NASA needs to develop plans for long duration microgravity testing and validation after the planned defunding of the ISS in 2017.
  • Basic and fundamental investigations of human health and life support issues, as well as other physical science investigations are absolutely critical to the reduction of risk for future Exploration missions.

We agree with the NRC that NASA is prematurely abandoning the ISS and that these decisions add significant risk to the Exploration Vision. We understand the pressures for Shuttle replacement, but we also understand the need to balance long-term risks of the Exploration Vision with these short-term needs. An even balance of science and technology that is always driven by the long-term value and risk mitigation will enable a successful exploration of the solar system including transitioning science and technology values to Earth all goals that were at the heart of the President's original vision.

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