On August 31, 2021, CASIS, or the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space as it is more formally known, will commemorate the 10-year anniversary of its creation and the beginning of a partnership with NASA to manage the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory as a public service to the nation. This was neither the first step on the path to building a new commercial space industry nor the last. However, it was an important and necessary next step in the transformation of the human space program from a government domain driven by exploration goals to the democratization of space for the advancement of commerce, education, and science to benefit Earth.
By the time of this anniversary marking the signing of the Cooperative Agreement with NASA, the International Space Station will have completed more than 135,000 orbits around the Earth and served as a home, classroom, workplace, engineering test bed, technology demonstrator, remote sensing Earth satellite, deep space observatory, multiuser spaceport, and research laboratory for 244 humans from 19 countries. During their time in orbit, ISS crew members have completed more than 3,000 investigations.
For crew on station, each orbit is a brief task-filled 90-minute-plus excursion from west to east and sunrise to sunset on an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees. But for those of us below, each orbit represents the infinite curiosity of the human imagination and an unquenchable drive to explore. To paraphrase astronomer Carl Sagan from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot,” where the edge of Earth’s atmosphere meets the vastness of space, “the frontier is everywhere.” NASA has other more distant frontiers to visit, but for those of us still tethered to Earth, there is still so much to discover right here.
The view from the frontier in low Earth orbit (LEO) is stunning for those who live and work there, but for the rest of us, it offers even more. From the ISS National Lab, there are clear lines of sight to new horizons for human exploration beyond Earth. There are also undiscovered pathways to commercial destinations near Earth that provide glimpses of future commerce in LEO, with proving grounds for the development of innovative biomedical and manufacturing technologies, possible only in space, leading to sustainable new markets and new services.
These commercial destinations and marketplaces on the LEO frontier catalyze the development of robust economies in space and inspire science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational engagement that fuels future innovation for application on Earth. By contributing to the next extensive reorganization of the global economy for the purpose of education, research, and manufacturing, the industrialization of space will transform human society for the better.
The Birth of a National Lab in Space
After making possible more than 20 years of continuous human presence in space through the sustained cooperation of many nations, the mission of the ISS continues to build upon a legacy of 50 years of human space exploration, leading to new capabilities for humans and their engineered systems to explore, pioneer, and colonize ever more distant destinations. More importantly though, the mission of the station continues to evolve—creating and growing opportunities for research, technology development, career development, manufacturing in space, and commercially owned and operated space platforms supported by commercial vehicles and commercial infrastructure.
Because of our nation’s commitment to build upon our space heritage and partner with international space agencies to design and assemble an orbital crewed platform, we have the ISS. Because of our nation’s commitment to establish an ISS National Lab, we have more frequent access to space-based research and business opportunities than at any time in human history. The ISS National Lab was established through congressional authority in 2005 and has been managed by CASIS since 2011.
CASIS was created in 2011 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by NASA via a Cooperative Agreement signed in August of that year, with a mission to foster scientific discovery and technological innovation in space, expand U.S. leadership in commercial space, and inspire the next generation. We now celebrate the 10-year anniversary of this landmark cooperative partnership between a government agency and a private nonprofit to increase access to space for research that benefits the nation and promises to help create a robust and competitive LEO economy. We share below a brief history of this novel public-private partnership between NASA and CASIS in managing the ISS National Lab.
The guiding national policy documents defining the conception of an ISS National Lab were codified in two NASA authorization acts:
- NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Section 507, National Laboratory Designation, Public Law 109-155, enacted December 30, 2005.
- NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Section 504, Management of the ISS National Laboratory, Public Law 111-267, enacted October 11, 2010.
From 2005 through 2010, NASA managed the ISS National Lab through a NASA Research Announcement (NRA), “Opportunity For The Use Of The International Space Station By Domestic Entities Other Than U.S. Federal Government Agencies,” No. NNH09CAO003O. This NRA used NASA’s authority to enter into non-reimbursable Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with researchers and Implementation Partners to support utilization of the ISS National Lab.
Following approval of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, NASA released a Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN) in 2011, ”ISS National Laboratory Management Entity,” No. NNH11SOMD002C, leveraging the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977 (aka “Chiles Act”), Public Law 95-224, enacted February 3, 1978. The choice of Cooperative Agreement as the legal instrument between NASA and the nonprofit organization selected to manage the ISS National Lab enabled the transfer of a share, or allocation, of ISS U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) resources to fulfill the public purpose directed in Public Law 109-155.
CASIS was selected by NASA as the nonprofit entity “to manage non-NASA utilization of the ISS through the ISS National Lab” and signed the Cooperative Agreement on August 31, 2011. This authorized CASIS to utilize up to 50% of the ISS resource allocation on the USOS, including transportation services and crew time, for the sponsorship of research and technology development (R&D) by users from U.S. academic and commercial entities as well as R&D sponsored by other (non-NASA) government agencies.
Looking Back on CASIS Accomplishments
What has CASIS accomplished in the 10 years since the signing of the Cooperative Agreement? Well, quite a lot.
Under the management of CASIS, the ISS National Lab has enabled the sustained growth of demand for commercial services in LEO that serve not only companies with a legacy of space-based R&D but also companies whose products and services have not traditionally considered or used space, as seen in the figure below. These private-sector companies utilizing the ISS National Lab range in size from multinational Fortune 100 companies with billions of dollars in revenue to small, entrepreneurial startup companies consisting of only a few individual innovators chasing their initial rounds of venture capital funding. The companies span global business sectors across the spectrum from energy to transportation, including consumer/health care products, industrial products, materials, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunication services. For more information on these projects and companies, view the ISS National Lab quarterly and annual reports.
The ISS National Lab is supported by an ever-growing network of commercial partner organizations that actively share their knowledge and experience in the mission of promoting and sustaining space-based research. This ecosystem of Implementation Partners and Commercial Service Providers has grown from a few companies in the year 2000 to more than 35 in 2021. These partners supply R&D services for ISS National Lab users and operate 17 commercial facilities on the ISS that increase capabilities for research, technology maturation, and manufacturing in LEO.
Learn more about the organizations whose mission is to support and facilitate research on the ISS, including translating science from the bench to a space-based platform. View the online database of ISS National Lab Implementation Partners for more information.
The sustainable growth of private investment leveraging an infusion of venture capital is also a critical step on the path to grow the LEO ecosystem. The ISS National Lab Investment Portal highlights the latest space investment news and investment opportunities and showcases how companies are leveraging the ISS National Lab to advance their research and technology development in the LEO environment. Read some of the latest investment perspectives discussed at the 2021 ISS Research and Development Conference held in early August in the ISS360 article “Investors at ISSRDC 2021: Positive on Opportunities, Focused on Performance.”
The ISS National Lab also creates demand for R&D in space by initiating strategic partnerships with other government agencies to fund research initiatives in fundamental and applied science, as shown in the figure below. Among our partners are the National Science Foundation (NSF) and multiple institutes within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) and the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). CASIS and NSF have partnered on numerous joint solicitations in the area of tissue engineering and mechanobiology and in the area of transport phenomena. Additionally, CASIS and NIH have collaborated on the Tissue Chips in Space initiative to support the use of tissue chip technology for translational research on the ISS to benefit human health on Earth.
Over the past 20 years, 2.6 million U.S. students (K-12) have designed, launched, operated, and used data from experiments performed on the ISS, as shown in the figure below. This immersive experience leveraging the “overview effect” and a natural curiosity about space is unprecedented in its depth, reach, and ability to inspire life-long learning that invites and inspires students to immerse in STEM disciplines. In the 10 years since the signing of the Cooperative Agreement, CASIS has partnered with NASA and a constellation of Space Station Explorers partner programs to feed and grow the next revolution in educational access to space.
Supporting Diverse Users Now and in the Future
The ISS National Lab supports a wide variety of users with a multitude of different goals and objectives. For some users of the ISS National Lab, the goal is to use the “overview effect” in space as a lever to increase an educator’s mechanical advantage for communication on STEM topics. If these users do not convey the inexplicable excitement of human space exploration to students on Earth, they have not succeeded in their mission.
For other ISS National Lab users, the goal is to run experiments, record observations, gain knowledge, and either publish papers or generate intellectual property. If these users do not discover or learn something new that can be shared with engineers, scientists, and technologists on Earth, they have not succeeded in their mission.
For still other users of the ISS National Lab, the goal is to improve technologies, therapies, and treatments for patients on Earth. If these users do not provide improved therapeutics to patients, they have not succeeded in their mission.
And finally, for some ISS National Lab users, the goal is to create, design, and test novel materials or assembly, manufacturing, and synthesis processes that improve the performance and utility of component materials in a device, product, or system with targeted applications on Earth or in space. If these users do not get their products to market where consumers will purchase them, they have not succeeded in their mission. The ISS National Lab exists to enable mission success for all users.
Our first 10 years working in partnership with NASA to manage the ISS National Lab have been motivated by our passion for the mission and a humble acknowledgement of the tremendous responsibility we have at CASIS to the nation and to every one of our partners, stakeholders, and ISS National Lab users. It has been a privilege to witness discovery at the speed of orbital velocity in the only national laboratory operating in space. We eagerly look forward to each new orbit, novel discovery, and a future of vast new frontiers that can only be realized in a space-based national lab. Ever upward!