This piece is part of our Forging the Path series in which CASIS experts share knowledge and insight from their experience managing a national lab in space.
Dan Blaettler is the director of portfolio management for the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. For more than 35 years, he has managed and lead major programs in the defense, space, and research sectors. He served 24 years in the U.S. Air Force and 10 years in civil service before joining CASIS, manager of the ISS National Lab, in January 2015.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) has managed the ISS National Lab for almost 11 years. In that time, we have selected and supported more than 600 research payloads with an estimated value of nearly $600 million. While CASIS and NASA have funded approximately $85 million of that total value, the majority of funding has come from government and commercial sector partnerships fostered by CASIS and from the principal investigators themselves. In addition to direct project development costs, often overlooked is the cost of facilities and supporting infrastructure (payload integration, launch, return, and astronaut time) that make ISS National Lab research possible. The value of this support has been estimated to be as high as $7 million per payload.
So why are these numbers important? Over the course of the past 11 years, the ISS National Lab has received proposals in a variety of ways. In the past two years, we have focused our attention on solicitations. These advertised opportunities provide an avenue for proposals addressing specific categories of research. Proposals are evaluated against purpose-built criteria so that the highest-quality proposals rise to the top, giving the best experiments the highest probability of selection. Overall, this new approach has been effective.
The ISS is a limited resource. Compared with ground-based facilities, the volume available on the ISS is relatively small, budget requirements are high, and timelines are long. For these reasons, it is imperative that the ISS National Lab select the projects that optimize utilization, cost, and time. Therefore, it is critical that research proposals fully address the criteria and express the value proposition of the research outcomes in the most thorough and accurate manner. To do this, we encourage all principal investigators seeking access to the space station through the ISS National Lab to review the information on our website.
In addition, to ensure a proposal has the highest probability of being selected, we strongly encourage principal investigators to do the following:
- Read and follow the Proposal Instructions. Proposal Instructions and Evaluator Guidelines are posted on our website with every solicitation. Aligning a proposal with the outline in our instructions is the best way to ensure the proposal includes all the elements needed for a thorough evaluation.
- Ask questions of the ISS National Lab staff (email addresses are in the instructions). If any information on our webpage or in our instructions is unclear, please ask questions. Contact information is provided on the webpage and in the instructions. Our staff will respond within one business day.
- Work closely with an Implementation Partner (IP) as early as possible in the proposal development process. IPs are companies and organizations with specialized expertise regarding payload development for research on the ISS. The vast majority of flight projects will require the support of an IP. Working with an IP early in proposal development will ensure the research approach is feasible and maximizes the capabilities of the ISS toward the research goals. If assistance identifying the best IP for the research is needed, the ISS National Lab can help.
- Share the proposal instructions and evaluation criteria with the IP. Every IP has a different skill set, and some have more experience writing proposals than others. Work with the IP as a team when developing a proposal and make sure they know what information they need to provide to support the final proposal.
- Review information provided by the IP before including it in a proposal to be sure it fully addresses the Proposal Instructions. Verify that the supporting proposal content the IP provides covers all the necessary elements for which the IP’s support is needed. Also, be sure the information from the IP does not conflict with any content in the proposal.
- Have a trusted person review the proposal along with the proposal instructions and evaluation criteria to ensure the highest probability of success. This is the key to a winning proposal for any solicitation. Someone who understands what the project aims to accomplish should review how the proposal is worded and compare it to the evaluation criteria that will be used to score the proposal. This review may identify information gaps and word choice improvements that can result in a more polished proposal. If nothing else, have someone proofread the proposal to be sure it is a complete package that communicates effectively.
The ISS National Lab serves as an independent and honest broker for the space research community. We seek only the best research with the highest probability of success and the greatest return. We have designed an evaluation process with these goals in mind. The success of our principal investigators is our success, both in being selected and in executing their research. Following the guidelines above will provide the greatest probability of success in our selection process. We wish the best of luck to all principal investigators in their future research endeavors.