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.
Michael Roberts, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist of the ISS National Laboratory, managed by CASIS in partnership with NASA, where he works with the best team on Earth to launch science to space for the benefit of humanity.
I am often asked the question: Is the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory really a national laboratory? And my answer is definitive and unequivocal: Yes, of course, it is. Why else would it be called the ISS National Lab if it were not in fact a national lab that, by the way, is the only national lab in the world operating at orbital velocity off of the world?
I suppose the question is asked because there are clear differences between the ISS National Lab and its terrestrial relatives. But here’s the secret—there are also similarities, which we’ll discuss shortly. First, a brief history lesson on national labs.
Where did the earthbound national labs get their start?
During World War II, the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD)—which was led by Dr. Vannevar Bush, an American engineer, inventor, and science administrator—was created to coordinate all wartime U.S. military research and development (R&D) in the service of national interest. In wartime, this effort focused on fundamental scientific discovery and technology maturation to aid America and its allies in the defeat of the Axis powers, resulting in transformative, disruptive technologies like radar, nuclear weapons, and the ability to manufacture vaccines for influenza and antibiotics like penicillin at scale. These new technologies not only served national security interests in WWII but grew well beyond their original military applications. They went on to generate novel fields of inquiry that, in turn, yielded new scientific discoveries and technologies able to benefit the national welfare and all of humanity.
After WWII, the U.S. wanted to sustain the focused scientific operations and technological advancement of the many U.S. academic institutions and unique facilities that had supported military R&D activities. The newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was tasked to develop a plan for post-war management of the U.S. wartime laboratories. This led to the development of funding lines with government-sponsored infrastructure that secured the future of the labs as “national laboratories” for basic and classified research with value to the nation. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Dr. Bush to develop a report to the U.S. government on how best to support science in the service of the nation and humanity, and the report “Science, The Endless Frontier” was published in July 1945. In the report, Dr. Bush said, “But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure (sic) our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” The report stressed the need for an expansion of government financial support for science and for the creation of a National Science Foundation to manage and execute the science.
By 1950, the U.S. National Science Foundation was created “to promote the progress of science, to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, and to secure the national defense.” Additionally, the “national laboratories” began operation as government-sponsored facilities, first under the AEC and then under the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as they currently are. Under the DOE, each of these 17 national laboratories support world-class fundamental and applied research. They serve as part of the U.S. R&D infrastructure to support scientists and engineers from academia, government, and industry with access to unique capabilities, world-class research facilities, and skilled technical staff. Collectively, the national labs are a critical resource necessary to sustain U.S. leadership in science and technology and to conduct leading-edge R&D for emerging U.S. industries of the future.
How is the ISS National Lab different but also similar?
The ISS National Lab is different from the DOE national labs in that it is managed by a nonprofit, nongovernment organization (the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc.) in partnership with NASA. However, the ISS National Lab shares the same bold vision as the DOE national labs: to support the broadest possible cross-section of U.S. scientific, technological, and industrial communities and serve as the backbone of the nation’s R&D infrastructure. It does this by enabling access to unique out-of-this-world capabilities, world-class research facilities, and skilled technical staff. It also forges partnerships with U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and private companies seeking to invest in space-based R&D to accelerate discovery, innovation, and value creation.
Since its inception in 2005, the ISS National Lab has sponsored research and educational programs in partnership with the NASA and supported by funding from other government agencies such as NSF and the National Institutes of Health. The ISS National Lab has not only enabled new scientific discoveries to benefit humanity but has also engaged with new industrial sectors and financial markets to fuel the sustainable future growth of space-based research. These public, private, and public-private partnerships led by the ISS National Lab have resulted in impactful new scientific discoveries and use-inspired innovation.
For example, the NIH Tissue Chips in Space initiative and the NSF Tissue Engineering and Mechanobiology initiative have funded research leading to advancements in regenerative medicine that will one day significantly improve health outcomes on Earth. Christopher P. Austin, former director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at NIH, discusses the benefits of space based R&D in the Scientific American article “Tiny Organs in Orbit.” Collectively, these initiatives led to recognition of the ISS National Lab by the Regenerative Medicine Foundation for exceptional leadership in enabling valuable regenerative medicine research in 2019.
From the industrial sector, the ISS National Lab has partnered with multiple fortune 500 companies like Merck & Co. as well as startup companies like LambdaVision and MicroQuin. Companies such as these are leveraging the ISS National Lab to accelerate the development and testing of new drugs, biologics, and drug-delivery technologies for patients on Earth. Merck’s space-based R&D enabled improvements in the formulation, safety, and efficacy of the company’s FDA-approved cancer therapeutic Keytruda®. LambdaVision is using microgravity to improve the development of an innovative protein-based retinal implant capable of restoring high-resolution vision and enhancing quality of life for patients with retinal degeneration. And results from MicroQuin’s R&D on the ISS could help the startup refine its cancer therapeutic and develop new drugs to treat breast and prostate cancers.
What value can the ISS National Lab uniquely provide?
The ISS National Lab is the only national lab operating in low Earth orbit and the single most accessible destination in space capable of supporting R&D to advance scientific discovery for innovation, commercial engagement, capital growth, and public-private investment. For these reasons, the ISS National Lab stands alone among its sister national labs in research capability and its value to the nation.
As Francis Pharcellus Church said to eight-year-old Virginia in his famous 1897 editorial, “Is There a Santa Claus?”—just because something cannot be seen doesn’t mean it’s not real. He went on to say, “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.” So, yes, there is a national lab in space. And although the ISS National Lab may not be as visible as the national labs on the ground, it sparks wonder and awe by enabling discoveries not possible anywhere on Earth.
This famous line is from an 1897 editorial in the New York newspaper The Sun titled "Is There a Santa Claus?" The editorial was written by Francis Pharcellus Church in response to a letter from eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon asking if Santa Claus was real.