Conclusions and Recommendations
Preceding chapters analyze on a discipline-by-discipline basis the factors limiting the scientific community’s ability to maximize the research potential of the ISS were. Based on that analysis the task group concluded that NASA’s revision of the ISS to the Core Complete configuration has drastically reduced the ability of the ISS’s to support science. Reduction of upmass capability, facilities and equipment, and available crew time for science operation singly or in combination severely limits or forecloses the scientific community’s ability to utilize the research potential of the ISS. The decision not to proceed with the initial capabilities as originally planned in Rev. F, combined with the absence of any well-articulated cross-disciplinary goal to unify or guide the process, has exacerbated an already significantly diminished capability of the ISS. The impact on the various scientific disciplines of the ISS revision to the Core Complete configuration varies, but it is in all cases substantial. Although the stated goal of NASA for its ISS program is to create a world-class laboratory, it is the opinion of the task group that the actions taken with regard to crew time, equipment, facilities, and logistics make this unlikely.
Discussed below are the specific factors that the task group found will create the most significant limitations on the ability of the science community to maximize the research potential of the ISS.
Interdisciplinary Priorities Not in Place
Many vital pieces of experimental equipment have been eliminated or indefinitely postponed. In many cases, such as in fluid physics, NASA has said that these decisions were made based primarily on what equipment had not yet been built, without any apparent weighting of the impact on overall scientific objectives. Since no cross-disciplinary priorities exist to act as a roadmap, these decisions appear to have been arbitrary. This inability on the part of NASA to provide cross-disciplinary priorities, as requested by the task group, during either phase I or the current phase II, was consistent with the demonstrated lack of scientific rationale used or provided to justify cuts made in manifested equipment and experiments. Lengthy delays or cancellation in equipment availability (e.g., the 2.5-m, 1-g centrifuge and advanced animal habitat) virtually eliminate the ability to achieve scientific objectives in disciplines such as radiation biology, systems physiology, countermeasure development, crew behavior and performance, fundamental biology, and bone and muscle physiology.
The most widespread and significant impact on the achievement of scientific objectives stems from the substantial reduction in crew time available for scientific activities. The original plans for the ISS specified a crew complement of six or seven persons. As the required housekeeping for the ISS was expected to, and has, occupied 2.5 crew persons, this would have left a 3.5- or 4.5-person crew available for scientific activities on the completed space station. The current plan for the ISS now includes only three crew members. This means that only 20 hours per week are available for scientific work, without taking into account the impact that unplanned activities may have. It should be noted that this 20-hour
figure is used by NASA for mission planning, and although the time actually devoted on-orbit may differ, the end result is that the tasks that are planned on the ground for 20 hours represent one-half of the on-orbit available time for one crew member. A further complicating factor in deciding how to apportion the 20 hours per week available for science payload operations stems from the fact that, according to the agreements currently in place with the international partners, the 20 available hours will be allotted, on average, in the following manner: 10 hours for Russia, 7.5 hours for the United States, and 2.5 hours for all others. This arrangement makes the situation even bleaker for U.S. investigators. The dramatic reduction in available crew time results in a space station with less time available for research than was available 30 years ago on Skylab, and it will critically compromise the ability of the ISS to support a significant program of science research. This limitation has an impact on every discipline examined, from a potential total elimination of the ability to achieve even a modicum of meaningful work on the ISS in many areas of radiation biology, systems physiology, crew behavior and performance, and fundamental biology, to lesser impacts on disciplines such as plant science, materials science, fundamental physics, combustion science, and fluid physics. Even these potentially less-affected fields will probably sustain significant negative impacts when they are forced to compete with the remaining scientific complement for the minimal time available.
Distributing the 20 hours of available time among several crew members ensures that no crew member will have more than a small percentage of his or her time associated with science activities. This creates inefficiencies and a lack of continuity. Past spaceflight experience has shown that science is served best when crew members train in depth on experiments and have a substantial portion of their on-orbit time dedicated to science.
International Partner Participation
The numerous revisions to the ISS configuration have resulted in strong objections by international partners that NASA is no longer in compliance with agreements on ISS development and utilization. To date, these compliance issues have not been resolved. This raises questions about whether the international partners will continue to support the ISS at previously planned levels. Since the announcement of the Core Complete configuration for the ISS, a large portion of the ESA budget for ISS support has been frozen, and NASDA has also announced that it expects to make substantial cuts in its ISS budget. Loss of science facilities that were to be provided by partners could have serious consequences for an already hobbled science program. For example, if the Japanese experiment module exposed facility were not available, the fundamental physics program on the ISS would be all but eliminated.
Experiment Facilities, Equipment, and Upmass
As shown in Table 1.1, many experiment racks have been eliminated or delayed indefinitely in the redesign of the ISS. In addition, the modules containing the functional equipment that will go into the remaining racks have also been reduced significantly in number, worsening an already dramatically reduced capability. The disciplines that are affected most severely by these reductions are materials science, fluid physics, fundamental biology, and muscle and bone physiology. For instance, the deletion of the animal habitat and the lengthy delay in the 1-g centrifuge severely limits research in systems physiology, fundamental biology, radiation biology, and bone and muscle physiology. The animal habitat is essential for basic studies on rats and mice, and the 1-g centrifuge is critical for providing valid in-flight controls for animal and plant experiments. The 1-g centrifuge could also be used in the future to support combustion research. The absence of these facilities significantly limits what kind of research can be proposed and implemented on the ISS.
Facilities for materials science research have been reduced dramatically. The Rev. F plan called for a facility with three research racks, a rack-mounted materials science laboratory, 13 experiment
modules, and two furnaces. Only one research rack, the materials science laboratory, one multiuser quench module insert, and a low-gradient furnace remain. With the limitations on upmass that will occur with a reduction in shuttle flights, it is unlikely that further modules can be provided. The return of samples and provision of supplies will also provide an ongoing logistics challenge. To accommodate fewer shuttle flights and facility changes in Core Complete, upmass and stowage volumes are expected to be reduced for many of the experiments. The quantity of scientific work is expected to be reduced accordingly.
The combustion research, fluid physics, and fundamental physics programs depend on instrumentation, and all have major pieces of equipment either at risk or canceled. The Shared Accommodations Rack supported both combustion and fluids physics work but has been deleted. Both the Combustion Integrated Rack and the Low Temperature Microgravity Physics Experiments Facility were deleted but subsequently restored; their future, however, is still uncertain.
Another unknown that affects all science operations on the ISS is logistics. It is being proposed to lengthen stays on the ISS and decrease the shuttle flight rate. Each shuttle flight would therefore need to have all the necessary supplies (food, water, clothes, parts) to support the longer stays, making it likely that operational needs will predominate on each shuttle flight, and thus making it more difficult to provide supplies and equipment for experiments.
The combined effects of reduced equipment and reduced logistical support will make a world-class research effort virtually impossible to initiate or sustain.
Research Community Readiness
The factors already cited, combined with the poor track record of NASA and the ISS for meeting schedule, budget, and scientific performance targets, further detract from the ability of the ISS to attract the scientific community or garner its support (see Figure 5.1).1 The uncertainty and instability of the ISS program with regard to keeping promises made to the science community do little to attract or retain established and next-generation scientists, whose careers can be seriously damaged by the failure of the program to provide the scientific opportunities that were promised. The avowed goal of the ISS—to be a world-class scientific laboratory producing world-class science—is not tenable as the ISS currently stands.
MAXIMIZING RESEARCH POTENTIAL
In considering ways in which the research potential of the ISS could be maximized, the task group looked at the restoration of certain critical capabilities to the ISS, as well as options based only on the current Core Complete configuration. Described below are the steps that would have the greatest impact on the overall research potential of the ISS. Suggestions for additional steps that would maximize research in specific disciplines are contained in the discipline chapters of the report.
Prioritization across and within scientific disciplines is the first step in deciding how the research potential for the ISS can be maximized. At the time of this writing NASA had charged an internal committee, the Research Maximization and Prioritization (ReMaP) Task Force, with developing priorities for its entire program of life and physical sciences research—and the task group is aware of ReMaP’s
preliminary findings.2 However, a detailed list of cross-disciplinary research priorities for the ISS has not yet been released, and numerous scheduling and other obstacles are faced by ReMaP in the development of such a list. Until such a prioritization is accomplished, however, it is virtually pointless to begin replanning, since without this prioritization there is no frame of reference or goal that can be used to guide or evaluate the success or efficacy of the research program.
The charge to this task group was to recommend ways of maximizing the research potential of the ISS. Effective utilization of these recommendations requires that NASA establish cross-disciplinary research priorities based on clear programmatic goals, since maximizing the potential involves making trade-offs. At present, the primary goal of the ISS is unclear. A tension seems to exist between enabling the human exploration of space and performing activities that have intrinsic scientific importance. These two categories are not mutually exclusive, but without a cross-disciplinary prioritization both within and across these two categories, intelligent use of the scarce and costly resources of the ISS is impossible. The following examples illustrate the range of possible primary goals that NASA might conceivably choose for the ISS:
The primary goal could be to support long-duration human space exploration. In this scenario, priorities and rankings for use of scarce resources could be set based on how well the individual
projects support this specific objective, which would include addressing questions in both the biological and the physical sciences.
The primary goal could be to have a world-class research laboratory, without any special emphasis on exploration, that serves a variety of disciplines. In this scenario, priorities might be set by providing each discipline with a budget and allowing each discipline to set its own priorities within that budget.
The strategy could be a hybrid of the two strategies above. One goal might be primary—for example, human exploration of space—but in pursuing that goal NASA would not eliminate scientific activities that are not directly related to human exploration. In this case, a fixed baseline budget might be furnished for scientific activities not related to human exploration, with the remainder of the research budget being devoted to human exploration and dispersed based on priorities (such as those in NASA’s Critical Path Roadmap.3 Alternatively, the primary goal could be to perform research of intrinsic scientific importance. In pursuing this goal, NASA would not eliminate activities related to human exploration that are not directly related to these scientific pursuits. As above, a fixed baseline budget could be furnished for human exploration not directly related to scientific activities, with the remainder being devoted to activities with intrinsic scientific importance and allocated based on priorities.
Finally, a salvage strategy could, in principle, be envisioned. The goal would be to get the maximum use out of the existing facilities. In this case, experiments would be selected principally because they are the easiest to perform and require the fewest resources (i.e., prioritization based on logistics). However, this arrangement has the potential to seriously compromise the quality of the science on the ISS. Even with a salvage strategy, care must be taken not to succumb to the temptation to carry out a given type of research simply because it is easy if in fact it yields little of real scientific value.
The best evidence available to the task group (such as that in IMCE (2001) and NASA testimony on a number of occasions before Congress) suggests that NASA wants to create a world-class laboratory in space that will provide the information needed to enable long-duration human exploration in the future, while maintaining a strong basic research program (the hybrid strategy described above). The recommendations that follow have been made with this goal in mind.
Finding: No cross-disciplinary prioritization plan exists for ISS research. This lack of cross-disciplinary prioritization exacerbates the uncertainty that is already undermining the confidence of the scientific community and that community’s readiness to support the ISS program.
Recommendation: Based on overall program goals for the ISS, NASA should create a cross-disciplinary research prioritization plan with accompanying rationale that permits ranking and can be used to effectively manage the scientific program.
In the life science disciplines, the research and operational medicine programs require crew activities that can influence or perturb the same physiologic parameters. These activities are not coordinated systematically in the flight program and can result in inadvertent corruption of scientific data as well as inefficient expenditure of resources.
Finding: Lack of effective coordination between operational medicine protocols and systems physiology research leads to conflicts and deleterious interactions during missions that result in the squandering of scarce crew resources.
Recommendation: NASA should establish systematic coordination between human physiology research and operational medicine on the ISS to ensure that crew care is not compromised and that coordinated acquisition of scientific data is facilitated.
As already noted, the time available for scientific activities on the Core Complete ISS is wholly inadequate and is the single biggest factor that is limiting achievement of scientific objectives. According to NASA, the reason for holding crew size to three is the inability to deorbit more than three crew members in the event of an onboard emergency, due to the limited capacity of the Soyuz and the indefinite postponement of a crew return vehicle.
Finding: NASA policy restricting crew size to that which can be returned immediately to Earth in the case of an emergency limits the crew size to three. This constraint means that little time is available for scientific activities since the time required for ISS housekeeping (this includes normal operation and maintenance exclusive of science) leaves only 0.5 crew available for science-related activities.
Recommendation: In view of the effect of crew return options on crew size, NASA should reevaluate its assumption that the crew return requirement in case of an emergency is the best approach to maintain crew safety and mission success. There may be other options—for example, safe haven concepts—that would maintain crew safety and permit a crew of seven. If it is determined that there is a requirement to ensure return of the ISS crew to Earth immediately, NASA should develop a plan whereby the original complement of seven crew members can be accommodated in a return vehicle so that the scientific objectives of the ISS can be met.
Finding: NASA currently has 20 hours of crew time per week identified for science-related activities on the ISS. Of this, only 7.5 hours will be allotted to the United States, which is not sufficient to take advantage of even the reduced scientific capabilities of the Core Complete ISS. Unplanned events, such as in-flight equipment repairs, even if they require a small amount of time (e.g., 30 minutes), can take a large slice out of the time for scientific activities performed if they are taken out of the science utilization time.
Recommendation: NASA should evaluate the adequacy of the time allotted to perform the science that is scheduled for the ISS, taking into account interdisciplinary priorities and the equipment and facilities that are available. Caution should be used when allocating the hours available for science investigations, since small allocations to individual crew members often involve overhead that may render the time operationally ineffective for research even though the total time spent meets the experiment requirements documentation. In addition, NASA should carefully consider what steps could be taken to reduce demands on on-orbit crew time. For example, any reduction in the time needed for ISS maintenance would have a large positive impact, in percentage terms, on the small amount of crew time now available for science.
The transition from Rev. F to Core Complete has placed severe constraints on facilities to accomplish U.S.-based scientific research. There will be little redundancy between facilities available in the U.S., European, and Russian research modules. There will also be crew members from different countries on the ISS at all times. Therefore, in order to maximize the research on the ISS, it is essential to ensure coordination of the research, so that crew from one country will be able to conduct experiments in
the modules of other countries and PIs from the U.S. will have access to facilities from other countries. Increased collaboration with international partners to share facilities and crew time could enable research that the U.S. science community cannot accomplish alone.
Finding: Looking at the facilities and equipment developed by the United States and its international partners, it can be seen that some research facilities are significantly delayed or missing from the Core Complete ISS, while some others appear to be redundant.
Recommendation: To maximize ISS facility usage, NASA should promote further collaborative interactions between the ISS science programs of the United States and those of its international partners in all disciplines.
Experiment Equipment and Facilities
Once the science prioritization on a cross-disciplinary basis is accomplished and the number of crew available for scientific activities is finalized, the decisions as to what experimental modules and experimental equipment are needed can be addressed intelligently. A rational plan that is consistent with stated scientific priorities is critical to assure and encourage the scientific community that the ISS has a scientific future.
Finding: The elimination or postponement of ISS experiment racks, modules, and equipment has greatly reduced the potential scientific yield of the ISS.
Recommendation: NASA should develop a plan providing for ISS experiment racks, modules, and equipment that is consistent with the scientific priorities of NASA and the ISS and is achievable within fiscal and schedule constraints.
The U.S. development cost of the ISS as currently planned has been estimated at approximately $26 billion. The additional cost to increase the crew number to seven is approximately $5 billion (IMCE, 2001).4 This means that a 20 percent increase in development cost would yield a 900 percent increase in crew research availability (4.5 versus 0.5 crew available for scientific activities). If the primary objective of the ISS is indeed to be a world-class laboratory in space, then the cost-benefit of taking this course of action is obvious. Not to take action would be akin to building a million-dollar home but stopping short of running electrical and water services to it. Without plans and decisions based on cross-disciplinary priorities that are clearly articulated and supported by corresponding allocations of resources, the ISS can never achieve the status of a world-class research laboratory.