NASA’s recent signing of an updated cooperative agreement with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) extends our role as manager of the U.S. International Space Station (ISS) National Lab through 2024, the budgeted life of the space station.
This long-term commitment signals to commercial entities and other organizations interested in leveraging the ISS National Lab that this R&D platform is available for use through at least 2024 and that there has never been a better time to pursue scientific, technological, or business interests in low Earth orbit (LEO).
As the U.S. continues to strive toward executing larger space missions, we hope the commercial sector will be a pivotal driver of the supply chain in LEO—and we hope that CASIS and the ISS National Lab can evolve to play a role in this future as well. The extension of the cooperative agreement is one more step toward a larger national goal to develop a non-NASA, private sector commercial presence in LEO. The ISS National Lab represents a valuable pathfinder for these activities—serving as part-research park, part-small business incubator, part-investor network. In the six years since NASA originally signed the cooperative agreement with us, CASIS has helped stimulate private sector demand and use of the ISS, which will enhance life on Earth and demonstrate a return on investment for taxpayers.
When CASIS began managing the ISS National Lab, two companies offered commercially available and operated facilities onboard the space station. Now we are up to seven. Space Tango, featured in this issue of Upward, is a great example of a new company providing a platform for supply-side commercial investment in LEO. Space Tango’s TangoLab facilities give users the opportunity to perform R&D experiments in a variety of potential configurations in microgravity. This Kentucky-based startup invested in its own infrastructure onboard the ISS and will sustain its operations by offering customers high-throughput, high-volume, and rapid response services using a commercial schedule and budget—helping companies launch their experiments to the ISS in under a year. That is a dramatic change from the three-to five-year timeframes typically experienced by microgravity researchers in years past.
The work CASIS does through partners directly supports additional national priorities, including our country’s security, prosperity, energy dominance, and health goals. Many of the R&D investigations on the ISS cut across these priorities. For example, this issue of Upward features an article on biomedical advancements using microgravity cell cultures and an article on investigators’ use of the updated SUBSA facility on the ISS to study microgravity’s role in the synthesis of semiconductor and scintillator crystals. Such crystals can be used to detect radiation, with applications in homeland security, safety, and human welfare on Earth. In addition, many primary users of the ISS National Lab include government agencies, with projects supporting the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and, of course, NASA.
With the extension of NASA’s cooperative agreement with CASIS, the U.S. is at a pivotal point in building a private sector commercial presence in LEO. NASA is responding to the growing user demand by adding a fourth U.S. crew member, which will enable the ISS National Lab to host and operate even more flight projects. Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions now launch to the ISS four to six times each year, providing multiple opportunities for payloads to launch, and NASA’s CRS-2 contract assures ISS National Lab users that a robust and diverse transportation solution from Earth to the ISS will continue through at least 2024.
Investigators can now conduct experiments onboard the ISS National Lab with cutting edge capabilities enabled by commercial service providers including NanoRacks, Space Tango, Techshot, and others—offered on a commercial cost and schedule. If you want to accelerate your product-to-market, test your technology in the environment of space, or gain invaluable, keen insights in the fundamental areas of science and discovery in microgravity, now is the time to participate in the evolution of a growing LEO economy.