On July 8, the NASA Inspector General issued an audit regarding the amount of research being conducted on the International Space Station. Since the completion of station construction in 2011, the amount of time devoted to research aboard the station has steadily increased, with each expedition setting new records for time devoted to scientific investigations. Considering the price tag for the station, though, at $60 billion for US construction costs alone (not including Shuttle flights), “more” isn’t necessarily enough.

Average crew time used for US research on ISS (Credits: NASA office of Inspector General).

“NASA has made progress over the past 14 years in increasing the use of the ISS as a research laboratory, but opportunities exist for greater utilization,” reported the office of Inspector General. The assessment particularly noted two dependencies required for ISS to reach its potential: the ability of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) to attract significant private research funding and the timely success of NASA’s Commercial Cargo and Crew Programs, without which ferrying of supplies and astronauts to the station is prohibitively expensive.

“NASA uses three significant data points to assess utilization of ISS research capabilities,” notes the report:

  • Average weekly crew time – Since 2011, NASA has exceeded its goal of spending an average of 35 hours per week on scientific investigations.
  • Number of investigations – For the fiscal year (FY) ending October 2008, NASA performed 62 investigations. Since then, the annual number of investigations has been above 100.
  • Use of allocated space – NASA expects that the utilization rate for space allocated for research purposes will increase in FY 2013 from about 70 percent to 75 percent for internal space and from 27 percent to 40 percent for external sites.

While no one measure provides a complete picture of the utilization rate, NASA has generally increased the level of activity for each metric since completion of ISS assembly in 2011.”

What is not currently well measured is CASIS’ success in convincing private partners to engage in microgravity research aboard the station. CASIS got off to rather a slow start -“suffered a series of organizational issues early on that may have affected its initial fundraising efforts,” as the report puts it – but it has been emitting signs of life in 2013. Nevertheless, the audit notes, “until NASA and CASIS establish precise metrics that reflect the degree to which CASIS is increasing non-NASA research on the ISS, it will be difficult to determine if CASIS is meeting the objectives of its agreement with NASA.” To that end, it recommends “that the NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate work with CASIS to develop precise annual performance metrics that measure CASIS’s success at fostering private research on the ISS.” It goes on to note that “In response to our draft report, the Associate Administrator agreed to develop such metrics.”

Read the full report below:

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Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.