House Committee Examines Status of International Space Station

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Publication date: 
16 July 2015

On July 10, the Space Subcommittee within the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing to examine the operational challenges currently bedeviling the International Space Station (ISS), including a number of recent and costly cargo launch failures and other technical failures.  During the hearing, members of Congress from both parties and witnesses spoke highly of the unique research platform that the ISS provides to U.S. and international researchers who use the station to conduct groundbreaking and one-of-kind experiments, including some that have already led to major benefits to humankind.

In opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Bruce Babin (R-TX) led with the litany of recent operational failures connected to the ISS, including the June failure of a Space X unmanned cargo rocket to launch, the inability of cargo vehicles to reach the ISS in April and June, and an false alarm of an ammonia leak that caused crew to retreat into the Russian segment of the ISS in January.  Said Babin: “All of these incidents highlight the challenges of operating in space, and they remind us that NASA’s contractors, engineers, and astronauts must be ever vigilant.  These events have challenged ISS operations, but the fact that the program was able to effectively respond to these setbacks is a testament to NASA, the ISS partners, and the contractors.”   Babin reaffirmed that, despite operational challenges, the ISS has strong bipartisan support in Congress and that these recent events ought not to undermine that support.  Babin called for continued collaboration in Congress to advance the station: “Support for the ISS and its operations and utilization is not a partisan issue.  It is an American issue, and I look forward to working with my friends on the other side of the aisle, and our partners in the space industry to understand how we can all meet the operational challenges facing the ISS program.

In his opening statement, Babin also pointed out that while the ISS is “one of the most complex, and expensive man-made objects ever built,” highlighting the $3 billion investment that U.S. taxpayers make in the station each year, the steep cost of the ISS is fully justified by the quality of the science and engineering coming out of the floating space laboratory.  Regarding the value of the science that has resulted from the ISS, Babin had only praise: “The ISS offers a unique micro-gravity environment for scientists and engineers to utilize.  NASA recently released its ‘Benefits to Humanity’ publication this week, detailing the many benefits that ISS provides back to our labs here on Earth.  From advances in on understanding of human health and performance, to our use of new materials, to the utilization of robotics and satellites, the benefits we receive from ISS are many, and diverse, and remarkable.  In addition to the benefits here on Earth, the ISS offers the conditions necessary to prepare and develop critical technologies for deep space and long duration human space flight missions.

In her opening statement, Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) also highlighted the educational value of ISS research.   Said Edwards: “What happens when you connect real-time with our astronauts who are living and working and carrying out research in this amazing laboratory that is orbiting 250 miles above us every 90 minutes is really quite an inspiration.  Thanks to NASA, the crews aboard the ISS and so many schoolchildren have also had the opportunity to ask questions and learn about human spaceflight through similar downlink events that we experience here in this room.”  Edwards was pleased that the number of ISS users had been increasing, among them users from the private sector: “In addition to NASA researchers and NASA-supported academic researchers, the ISS national laboratory management entity CASIS [the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space] has drawn new commercial users, including pharmaceutical companies, to the ISS.” 

Edwards expressed concern, however, that only 12 percent of the overall ISS budget currently goes toward research.  Ranking Member of the full House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added: “Stagnant ISS research budgets do not communicate the message that we are serious about supporting the important research and technology efforts that can only be accomplished on the ISS.  That is a problem that Congress could and should fix.

The first witness testifying, Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, underscored the exceptional quality of the research taking place on the ISS.  Began Gerstenmaier, “This is one of the most talented and dedicated international teams in the world.  The ISS is an amazing research facility.  Today on the ISS during this expedition, there are 329 research investigations in progress.  These span topics from human research into how the human body performs in micro gravity, basic biology and bio-technology, physical science, Earth and space science, technology development and education.  There’s never been this scope of research performed on a continuous basis in space.”  Gerstenmaier added that this is truly an international research platform, as 83 countries around the world have used the ISS for research. 

In addition, said Gerstenmaier, many of the users of the ISS are non-NASA, as private entities and universities are increasingly taking the opportunity to conduct their own experiments in space: “This is an exciting time as many new researchers are beginning to see the advantages of space-based research to augment their terrestrial investigations.  The growth of non-NASA research is exciting and shows that there’s a generic interest in using the unique properties of space to investigate basic research opportunities typically only done on the Earth.  Space provides a unique window into any physical process that is affected by gravity.  Further, the human body reacts in space with many conditions that mimic conditions facing the elderly: bone loss, muscle wasting, immune system degradation, and balance problems.”  This kind of research, added Gerstenmaier, can be done nowhere else.

The next witness, John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at The Boeing Company, joined the chorus in praising the magnitude of the ISS accomplishment.  Elbon asserted that “The ISS has been recognized as the largest, most complex international scientific and engineering project in history and the world’s largest endeavor in space to date,” adding that “ongoing improvements are making ISS even better.”  Elbon underscored how the ISS is exemplary of how the people of the world can successfully come together to fund and implement a major science project benefiting all of humanity: “The ISS is an engineering marvel, a beacon for international cooperation, and a shining example of what can be achieved through strong leadership and unity of purpose on behalf of humankind.”  The Boeing Company is NASA’s prime contractor for the ISS.

Another witness, Shelby Oakley, Acting Director for Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the Government Accountability Office, noted that ISS research faces a number of threats.  In particular, Shelby warned that any further increases in transportation or operations costs could crowd out the available funding for research.  In addition, she pointed out that “Recent mishaps of the commercial cargo vehicles have had a direct impact on both CASIS and NASA efforts to increase research on ISS.  For example, launch failures and delays have already resulted in the loss of CASIS-sponsored research and increased costs by almost $500,000.”

The final witness, James Pawelczyk, Associate Professor of Physiology and Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, highlighted the importance of the National Research Council’s 2011 Life and Physical Sciences Decadal Survey, and its summary of 65 high priority research tasks for prioritizing research on the ISS.   Asked whether Congress should extend the ISS through to 2024, Pawelczyk reframed the question and answered: “Is NASA prepared to operate a robust research program through 2024?  In my opinion, the answer is an unqualified yes.  Exclamation point.  Absolutely.  The transformation of this organization in the past five years has been nothing short of remarkable in the life and physical sciences.” 

Discussed several times during the hearing was how current federal law limits the life of the operation of the ISS to 2020.  Last year, the Obama Administration announced support for the extension of the ISS program from 2020 to 2024.  Absent action from Congress to extend it, the Administration would be required to begin close out of the program in 2020.  While the Members of the Committee seemed open-minded about an extension to 2024, none were yet prepared to back it outright. 

During question and answer, one exchange in particular, between Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) and Pawelczyk captured the excitement around the ISS at NASA and in the broader research community.  Beyer recalled that during the 2000s, as a result of NASA’s science priorities, space, life, and physical sciences were hard hit and many scientists left the field.  Beyer asked: “Do you have any concerns about the level of the work force and expertise in that field today, especially as we get ready to think about man’s mission to Mars?”  Pawelczyk responded: “I’d say the short answer is no…. One of the great things that has happened since 2011 is that NASA has re-instituted a ground-based program [for ISS research].  If you look at the numbers of people who are applying, they’re in the hundreds per solicitation right now…. You’re seeing maybe some of the youngest scientists that have really schooled in the entrepreneurial spirit saying ‘Hey, this is something I’d like to take an opportunity in and check out.’  The ISS Research Conference this week was about three times bigger than what it was just a year ago.  So there’s a growing spirit, and we need to continue to feed that spirit, and I think great things will happen as a result.”