The International Space Station has been officially under development by NASA since the late 1980s. Numerous changes in schedule and cost projections throughout the 1990s have prompted reevaluations of the number and scale of the major facilities that would eventually be placed on board; the schedule for developing, deploying, and utilizing those facilities; and the critical resources such as crew time and power needed to support ISS science research. As a result, specific concerns over schedule delays and potential downgrading of the ISS research capabilities have been growing for several years in the scientific community. In the fall of 2000, Congress directed the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to organize a joint study of the status of microgravity research in the life and physical sciences as it relates to the International Space Station (ISS). The study is being conducted in two phases. This phase-1 report addresses the question of the scientific community’s readiness to use the ISS for life and physical sciences and assesses the relative costs and benefits of dedicating an annual space shuttle mission to research versus simply maintaining the current schedule for assembly of the ISS.
RECENT CHANGES TO ISS SCIENCE CAPABILITIES
Subsequent to the initiation of this study, NASA announced large cost overruns for the construction of the ISS (Goldin, 2001). As a consequence, major changes were proposed by the agency in the ISS design that would reduce the total ISS crew capacity from six or seven to three, and cancel or delay indefinitely the development and deployment of many of the planned major research facilities. To accommodate both the possibility of a rescoped station and the uncertainty regarding the actual extent of such a rescoping, the Task Group on Research on the International Space Station chose to consider two alternate scenarios in developing its conclusions. In the first scenario the task group assumed that the August 2000 design for the ISS,1 designated “Rev. F” by NASA,2 remains unchanged. Under Rev. F, the ISS would support a full crew of six to seven astronauts and provide fully instrumented, dedicated facilities for research in a range of science disciplines. In the second scenario the task group assumed that the design and schedule changes contained in the proposed fiscal year (FY) 2002 budget for NASA are implemented. The proposed changes would result in a three-person crew and deletion or indefinite delay
of a large number of research facilities, supporting hardware, and experiment modules. For convenience, this scenario is referred to as “proposed Rev. G” in this report.3
READINESS TO UTILIZE THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION
The task group was extremely concerned about the schedules for the development and deployment of ISS research facilities that were presented by NASA during the course of this study. In the task group’s view, a fully equipped ISS—including adequate crew support, electrical power, and experiment accommodations—needs to be in operation if NASA’s scientific objectives are to be achieved. Proposed reductions in crew size, facilities, and power have caused great concern in the scientific community. Specific concerns expressed by groups representing the ISS user community (Sekerka, 2001; Fettman, 2001; Katovich, 2001) have strengthened this task group’s view that the future of science on the ISS would be severely impaired under the proposed Rev. G scenario.
Based on a review of NASA’s program data—including ISS experiments planned, rates of proposal submission, and success and student funding levels—as well as input from members of the ISS user community, the task group reached the following conclusions:
The U.S. scientific community is ready now to use the ISS.
However, this readiness cannot be sustained if:
The proposed reductions in the scientific capabilities of ISS take effect, or
Slippage continues in both the development and science utilization schedules for the ISS as currently proposed, or
Uncertainties continue in funding for science facilities and flight experiments on the ISS.
Adding Annual Shuttle Missions for Laboratory Science
Proposed reductions in available experiment accommodations, crew, and power raise concerns about the ultimate functionality of ISS and thus directly affected the task group’s consideration of whether additional shuttle flights dedicated to science should be flown during ISS assembly and outfitting.
The task group concluded that ISS science could not proceed without the appropriate crew support and a clearly defined time line for deployment and completion. If the present Rev. F design and schedule were maintained, then it would be preferable to proceed with construction of a fully equipped ISS rather than divert resources to fly ISS science on additional shuttle missions. However, if ISS capabilities were to be reduced below Rev. F levels and there were no annual microgravity research-dedicated shuttle flights, then the viability of the overall program in microgravity research would be seriously jeopardized, as would the ability of NASA to achieve its stated scientific goals for the ISS. Therefore, if it becomes apparent that the ISS will not be available for meaningful microgravity research by the beginning of FY 2006, then annual shuttle flights dedicated to microgravity experiments should be made a part of the program.
Specifically, the task group recommends that:
Assuming that the Rev. F schedule and capability are achieved, then:
If ISS development were to be the funding source for additional microgravity shuttle flights, then no additional shuttle flights should be planned for microgravity research.
If funding were to be provided from new sources, then it would be highly beneficial to fly additional annual flights until the ISS (with Rev. F capabilities) is complete.
Assuming that the proposed Rev. G schedule and capability are selected, then:
If capabilities were to be reduced according to Rev. G projections, then annual shuttle flights devoted to science should be flown until the ISS reaches either the research capability planned for “assembly complete” under Rev. F, or a similar level of capability that has been reviewed and approved by an independent body of scientists that can credibly represent the interests of the ISS user community.
In case B above, it should be noted that plans to use the shuttle will have to be integrated into the overall NASA mission planning by 2004. These recommendations also assume that the currently planned space shuttle microgravity missions, STS-107 and STS-123 (R2), planned for 2002 and 2004 respectively, are conducted as scheduled. Also, the activities described above should not be accomplished in such a manner as to jeopardize the sustainability and readiness of the program for microgravity research in the biological and physical sciences.
Fettman, Martin J. 2001. Letter to Joel Rothenberg on funding for the Space Station Biological Research Project. Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, March 9. Photocopy.
Goldin, Daniel S. 2001. Statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, April 4. Available online at <http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/legaff/goldin4-4.html>.
Katovich, Michael J. 2001. Letter to the Honorable Barbara A.Mikulski on funding for the Space Station Biological Research Project. University of Florida, College of Pharmacy, June 28. Photocopy.
Sekerka, Robert F. 2001. Letter to the Honorable Barbara A.Mikulski on the level of ISS research funding. Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Physics, June 27. Photocopy.