NASA and space station alliance on shaky ground

Even as the latest shift of astronauts arrived at the International Space Station, NASA challenges with the orbital outpost on the ground are threatening its future.

Those challenges include the pending retirement of the space shuttle but also the way NASA and the ISS are managed. A report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office said NASA faces several significant issues that may impede efforts to maximize utilization of all ISS research facilities. The main challenges are, according to the GAO report:

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The Space Shuttle is currently slated to retire in 2010, and as of November 2009 only five launch opportunities remain. The GAO has previously reported that the ISS will face a significant cargo supply shortfall without the Space Shuttle.11 Since NASA has the few remaining Space Shuttle flights scheduled to carry equipment required for assembly, operations, and maintenance, there may be limited cargo capacity for research payloads. Potential researchers and others have told the GAO that they have faced difficulty in getting payloads scheduled on board the Space Shuttle in a reasonable amount of time.

Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, NASA will rely on an assortment of vehicles in order to provide the necessary logistical support and crew rotation capabilities required for the ISS, but none will offer the same cargo capabilities as the Space Shuttle delivering cargo to the ISS and delivering cargo back to Earth.

Too expensive: NASA officials have stated that it is significantly more expensive to conduct research on board the ISS than on Earth and the agency now views lack of funding for research as the major challenge to full research utilization of the ISS. According to NASA, one of the major costs is the cost to launch payloads to the ISS. When the Space Shuttle retires, the Russian Federal Space Agency and later the commercial launch partners will be able to set the launch costs. Costs to the user of the ISS vary: NASA signed a memorandum of understanding with NIH as an ISS National Laboratory user to launch biomedical experiments to the ISS, and NASA officials have stated that the agency will work with NIH to determine the demand for launch services and accommodate NIH payloads. However, NASA officials said the agency has set no money aside for ISS National Laboratory payload development or transportation, and it may be unable to provide complimentary launch opportunities to National Laboratory users.

According to the GAO, NASA said launch cost estimates of $44,000 per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) along with the caveat that the costs to develop and launch experiments vary widely depending on the experiment. Researchers the GAO spoke with gave higher estimates for payload costs. USDA reported that the average payload cost for its experiments, which were individually contained in a compartment the size of a shoe box, was about $250,000. Though specific figures will vary depending on the nature of the payload, these types of costs may be prohibitive to researchers who are responsible for seeking their own funding. According to NASA officials, the National Laboratory designation does not guarantee an appropriation specifically for ISS National Laboratory, and it is unclear if NASA or other federal agencies will be able to provide any funding support to facilitate ISS utilization, the GAO report stated.

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