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NASA OIG: NASA's Efforts to Maximize Research on the International Space Station

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Monday, July 8, 2013

image NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin today released a report examining NASA's efforts to maximize research on the International Space Station (ISS or Station). Given the high construction cost ($60 billion plus an additional $40 billion for Space Shuttle assembly missions) and its $3 billion in annual operating costs, national leaders have emphasized the importance of maximizing the scientific research capabilities on the Station. Congress designated the U.S. segment of the ISS as a national laboratory in 2005, and directed NASA to increase utilization by other federal entities and to foster commercial interest in conducting research.

In 2010, NASA was directed to enter into a cooperative agreement with a non-profit organization to manage at least 50 percent of the Agency's available research resources on the ISS. NASA selected the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and provides the organization with $15 million annually. To supplement these funds, CASIS is expected to raise additional money through business development, donations, and membership fees and encourage others to conduct self-funded research on the Station.

In this audit, the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) examined the current level of Station research, CASIS's efforts to facilitate non-NASA research aboard the ISS, and challenges that hinder its full research utilization.

The OIG found that although NASA has made progress towards maximizing the research capabilities of the ISS, opportunities exist for increased utilization. NASA uses three main data points to assess utilization of ISS research capabilities: average weekly crew time dedicated to research activities, number of investigations, and use of allocated space for research. While no one measure provides a complete picture of the utilization rate, NASA has generally increased the level of activity for each metric since completion of ISS assembly in 2011.

Further progress in maximizing Station research capabilities largely hinges on two factors: the ability of CASIS to attract sufficient interest and funding from private users and the availability of reliable transportation to and from the Station for crew and cargo.

CASIS's task is particularly challenging given the historic lack of interest from private entities in conducting research aboard the ISS in the absence of government funding. Moreover, CASIS suffered a series of early organizational issues that may have affected its initial fundraising efforts. In addition, although the organization met most of its early performance metrics, these metrics were focused primarily on achieving organizational milestones rather than measuring how successful CASIS has been in encouraging research on the ISS.

CASIS's general goals for fiscal year 2013 -awarding research grants from funds raised through donations and approving more self-funded investigations - are positive first steps toward enhancing a market for non-NASA research aboard the ISS. However, the OIG found that neither CASIS nor NASA have developed specific, quantifiable metrics to measure CASIS's ability to meet these goals. Without more precise metrics that reflect the degree to which non-NASA research is conducted on the ISS, it will be difficult to determine if CASIS is achieving its goal of improving the return on investment in the ISS by increasing use of the national laboratory.

In addition to the challenges facing CASIS, the effort to maximize research capabilities aboard the ISS depends significantly on the success of NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs. The cargo program is essential to ensuring the capacity to ferry experiments to and from the Station and the commercial crew vehicles currently under development will make it possible to staff the ISS with a full complement of seven crew members (rather than the current six), thereby increasing the amount of crew time available for research.

The OIG recommended that NASA work with CASIS to develop precise annual performance metrics that measure CASIS's success at fostering private research on the ISS. The Agency agreed with the recommendation.

The full report can be found on the OIG's website at http://oig.nasa.gov/ under "Reading Room" or at the following link:
http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY13/IG-13-019.pdf

Please contact Gail Robinson at 202-358-1220 if you have questions.

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