Science Committee Holds Hearing to Review Plans for the International Space Station

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Publication date: 
13 April 2012

The ISS [International Space Station] is an  extraordinary engineering achievement. And it is a remarkably successful  international collaboration that presents us an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish  beneficial scientific research. I would like to see the ISS live up to its  promising potential. I would like to see it enable scientists and researchers  to do innovative research – the kind of life-saving biomedical research – that  can only be done in space. Fulfilling the promise of the ISS would not only serve  humanity, it would also strengthen America’s leadership in science, technology  and education.” – Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX)

The House Committee on Science,  Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled, “Securing the Promise of the ISS  – Challenges and Opportunities.”  The  purpose of this March 28 hearing was to review NASA’s plans for effectively  managing and utilizing the International Space Station (ISS) through 2020, including  how NASA plans to continue conducting research aboard the ISS and how the  agency will ensure that essential transportation and facilities resources are  adequate to meet scientific research needs.

Testifying before the committee  were William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator of the Human  Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate; Christina Chaplain, Director of  Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the US Government Accountability Office  (GAO); and Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford, US Air Force (Retired), Chairman  of the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

The ISS is a culmination of  international research collaboration between the US, Canada, Europe, Japanese  and Russian partners.  The 2005 NASA  Authorization Act designated the ISS as a national laboratory and directed NASA  to utilize it for research through cost sharing and partnerships.  The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 required  NASA to develop a Research Management Plan to prioritize research activities  and the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 extended the mission by a minimum of 5  years, from 2015 to at least October of 2020. 

Both sides of the aisle showed  support for the research conducted by NASA on the ISS.     Ranking Member Eddie Bernice  Johnson (D-TX) emphasized the need for a clear plan for utilization of the ISS  while Chairman Hall expressed concerns for sustaining the ISS and fulfilling  its research potential.  Both Democrats  and Republicans expressed the importance of the ISS as a technological  achievement.   

“Supplying  and utilizing the ISS is simply too important to be left to others,” stated Hall.  “I am  often painfully reminded that NASA will rely on our Russian partners for crew  transportation to ISS for the next several years.”

Hall was concerned about the  back-up capabilities available for access to the ISS:

“I  also want to reiterate again that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed  that the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule be designed to provide  a back-up capability for access to the ISS.   After spending tens of billions of dollars to build the space station, Congress  wanted to ensure that a national capability to access it was not jeopardized by  over-reliance on untested commercial propositions.”

Johnson highlighted the benefit  that the ISS has to students interested in science as she emphasized the need  to make the ISS a productive research facility:

It is an  accomplishment that has had great inspirational value for our young people, as  evidenced by the intense interest of our students in talking to the orbiting  astronauts and in developing science projects that might fly on the  Station.  However, while we can talk  about the promise offered by the ISS in enabling future space exploration as  well as carrying out basic and applied research that can benefit life here on  Earth, its success in fulfilling that promise is not assured. We will only  realize its promise if NASA and Congress ensure that the necessary steps are  taken to make the ISS a productive research facility and technology testbed.”

Regarding the ISS research budget,  Johnson stated:

“If we want to  ensure that the ISS carries out the needed research and technology activities  in a timely and productive fashion, we have to be willing to make the needed  investments. The ISS research budget is stagnating, and the agency’s life and  microgravity sciences budget has been cut deeply over the past decade. That  does not seem to me to be a formula for success.”

Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics  Subcommittee, Jerry Costello (D-IL) also stressed, in his written statement, the  importance of the ISS in addressing unknowns in scientific understanding:

“With all that it  took to get the ISS to where it is today, we must ensure it is fully utilized  so U.S. taxpayers can see a return on their investment of over $50  billion.  Congress stressed the importance of ISS utilization in numerous  authorization and appropriations Acts...   Before we can make concrete plans for sending humans to explore faraway  places like Mars, we need to better understand how to deal with such unknowns  as radiation and bone loss and how human beings react to being in a closed  environment in space for months, even years, at a time.  The ISS is a  unique platform that will help us do the research necessary to gain such  understanding.”

Gerstenmaier gave an overview of  the ISS facility including the US and international cargo and crew  transportation systems as well as the operating systems.  He also provided a description of the range  of scientific research that is part of the growth in the utilization of the  ISS. He stated, the  ISS has now entered its intensive research phase, and this phase will continue  through at least 2020. Station will continue to meet NASA’s mission objective  to prepare for the next steps in human space exploration -- steps which will  take astronauts beyond LEO to destinations such as the asteroids, the Moon, and  eventually, Mars.”

Chaplain discussed the results of  a GAO assessment on the access and use of the ISS.  The GAO concluded that there is still a  question as to whether NASA will be able to service the station and  productively use it for science in the long term. She concluded in her written  testimony, the  road ahead depends on successfully overcoming several complex challenges, such  as technical success, funding, international agreements, and management and  oversight of the national laboratory. Finally, if any of these challenges  cannot be overcome, it will be contingent upon NASA to ensure that all  alternatives are explored—in a timely manner—to make full use of the nation’s  significant investment in ISS.”

Stafford addressed whether NASA’s current plans are  adequate to ensure that the requirements are met through at least 2020.  He expressed his reservations regarding the  commercial vehicle launch schedule: 

NASA’s current plans are adequate to ensure that  requirements for ISS maintenance, growth, crew supplies, and expendables,  NASA’s scientific research utilization, National Laboratory growth and  utilization, and other contingency maintenance, can be met for the immediate  future (at least 1 – 2 years)…. Beyond that timeframe, NASA becomes  increasingly dependent on its projected flow of sparing and re-supply needs, on  the planned fleet of cargo vehicles which includes the ATV, HTV, Progress, and  Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) Vehicles. In joint assessment with the  Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), my ISS Advisory Committee concluded  that the commercial vehicle launch schedule was overly optimistic and we have  not received sufficient data to conclude with confidence that the schedule  could be met. This was the unanimous conclusion of both groups.”