Senator Hutchison Seeks Broader Role for Space Station

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Publication date: 
6 May 2005

"I am especially concerned that we build our path to the future without short-changing the investment we have made in the exploration tools we already have in hand." - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)

The chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), wants to find a way to ensure that research on board the International Space Station (ISS) fulfills many of the promises that have been made for it over the years. While supportive of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, at an April 20 hearing she stated her commitment "to ensuring that the investment we have made as a nation in the International Space Station is rewarded to the greatest extent possible by the fulfillment of the purposes for which it has been designed.... This important, impressive facility cannot be allowed to be used simply as a tool for Moon and Mars exploration-related research," she declared. "This facility is capable of doing much more for our nation...and we must ensure that we make the maximum use of its capabilities." As input to her preparations for a NASA reauthorization bill, she probed witnesses for suggestions on management models that might let the U.S. continue with a broad range of research objectives for the station.

Marcia Smith of the Congressional Research Service reviewed the station's history since it was originally proposed by President Reagan in 1984. She noted that when the program began, it was expected to serve eight separate functions: as a laboratory; a permanent Earth and space observatory; a transportation node; a facility for servicing, assembling, manufacturing, and storing components, payloads and vehicles; and a staging base for future missions. Under the first President Bush, the station was downsized and limited to one remaining role, a laboratory in space. Further rounds of downsizing and cost-cutting followed under Presidents Bush and Clinton. In 1993 the Russians joined the international partnership, and in 1998 the first two elements were launched. After taking office in 2001, the second President Bush cancelled three major U.S. elements, including the Crew Return Vehicle, reduced the research budget, and called for a reprioritization of the research program by the Research Maximization and Prioritization (ReMaP) Task Force. Then, in his Vision for Space Exploration, announced in January of last year, the President stated that "we will focus our future research aboard the station on the long-term effects of space travel on human biology." The full extent of the impact of President Bush's vision on the utilization of the ISS "is not clear yet," Smith said. "What is known," she added, is that "the scope of research would be narrowed," there would be "fewer years during which NASA would conduct research," and "the shuttle would not be available" to support scientific operations after the station is completed.

In prepared testimony, William Readdy, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations, stated that "U.S. research activities aboard the Station will be focused to support the new exploration goals." He informed the subcommittee that "NASA is currently in the process of focusing and prioritizing International Space Station research and technology development efforts on areas that best contribute to the Vision." He continued, "In order to best utilize limited resources, NASA is phasing out some activities that do not directly support the Vision...and reallocating resources to the higher priority areas." Readdy reported that, prior to President Bush's announcement of the new exploration goals, NASA had studied possible management options for long-term ISS utilization. But, he said, those studies were suspended after Bush's announcement.

Hutchison asked for the preliminary findings of these studies, to aid her in preparing a reauthorization bill for the space agency. She and other subcommittee members questioned the witnesses about possible management models for long-term ISS research, the prospects for private investment, the most appropriate types of research, and U.S. access to the station after the shuttle is retired. Some management options mentioned included designating the ISS a national laboratory, operating it as a federally-funded R&D center or a research institute, or management by consortium. While stating that a balanced, overall program of science, exploration and aeronautics must "capitalize on the unique testbed" offered by the ISS, Jeffrey Sutton of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute cautioned that NASA must be "more selective in the types of experiments flown" on the station. He urged decisionmakers to ask, "What can only be done on the space station?"

"Selecting which experiments get to fly" is a significant challenge, agreed Mary Ellen Weber of the University of Texas, Southwest Medical Center. This can only be determined, she said, by first deciding what the station's mission is: Is it intended to be a conduit for private-sector commercialization of products? Or is it intended to serve the national interest, by supporting the space exploration initiative, for example? She highlighted two areas of research that she thought would reap substantial rewards for private investors: the growth of human tissue outside the body, and the growth of protein crystals to advance drug design based on the structures of protein molecules. Weber, whose past work at NASA included efforts to attract private investment to space research, offered a number of "lessons learned." The space agency must make "a paradigm shift," she said, and begin to take the responsibility for surveying the marketplace, identifying a compelling market need, ensuring a specific source of revenue, and developing a business plan, rather than "put[ting] the onus on investors."