Findings & Recommendations on ISS National Laboratory

The International Space Station, backdropped by the blackness of space and the thin line of Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)

International Space Station (ISS) Cooperative Agreement
Independent Review Team

Final Report to NASA
Delivered February 4, 2020

Full Report

Consolidated Findings and Recommendations


Finding 1.1: The ISS National Laboratory (ISSNL) was created as a broad-based research facility, but NASA reduced ISS research in 2004-2005 to focus on human health and safety. Congress did not want to lose the broad research facility for activities in low Earth orbit (LEO) and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) did not exist at the time of the original legislation. Consequently, there is now a NASA division tasked with enabling research activities that potentially overlap with the ISSNL. Both SLPSRA and Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) perceive that they often operate in competition with one another for crew time, critical on-orbit facilities and “credit” for research results.

Finding 1.2: ISSNL was created at a specific time for a specific purpose to address potential shortfalls in ISS utilization. This problem no longer exists; the ISSNL has a robust portfolio of activities. However, the underlying set of expectations and predicted futures have evolved dramatically in the intervening 15 years – to include commercial LEO, new NASA and US perspectives and priorities on commercializing space, visions for human exploration and expansion of potential platforms upon which to conduct science.

Finding 1.3: There are now entities using the ISS beyond the scope originally envisioned for the ISSNL. The Independent Review Team (IRT) heard from commercial stakeholders and Implementation Partners that this is a challenge and that they have little way to make their needs and desires heard.

Finding 1.4: There is confusion regarding the scope and purpose of the authorizing legislation among stakeholders and how it is represented in the CA between NASA and CASIS. There are slight to large differences in interpretations of what the ISSNL is supposed to do, many different definitions of the mission of the ISSNL, and no shared vision.

Finding 1.5: The functions of the ISSNL liaison and the ISS National Laboratory Advisory Committee (INLAC) have been implemented differently than the original intent of authorization language. It is not clear that this implementation has been fulfilled the critical need for oversight and stakeholder engagement.

Finding 2.1: National Laboratories within the U.S. do not provide useful models for NASA to compare and consider when looking at the future of the ISSNL. ISSNL is unique in its mandated focus on non-NASA research and its secondary focus on non-research activities.

Finding 2.2: There is dysfunction in the Board Structure and Board-CEO dynamic. The previous board structure was inappropriate for the business structure; a 15 person board for a 60 person organization is excessive. Typically, 501(c)(3) organizations do not employ compensative boards. Rather, boards should be motivated by mission, not personal interest. It is not clear that CASIS corporate bylaws have been fully reconciled with changes to the Cooperative Agreement (CA).

Finding 2.3: The separate and distinct roles of Board and User Advisory Committee have been conflated. As noted in GAO-15-397, “NASA has still not staffed an Advisory Committee with which CASIS is required to interact.”

Finding 2.4: The lack of operating structures typical for a startup or oversight structures typical for a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) has placed CASIS in the role of commercialization sponsor on the ISS. While this role does not meet the broader vision outlined in 2005 and 2008 congressional authorization language, it is in keeping with the “one of many” construct presented in the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

Finding 2.5: CASIS’s Value Impact Model does not address allocation of resources when meritorious projects exceed the capacity of the ISSNL. Furthermore, CASIS does not appear to have a mechanism in place to sunset projects because of success (program is ready to function independent of ISSNL, such as a purpose-built commercial platform) or failure (unsuccessful startup).

Finding 3.1: CASIS lacks a purpose-driven mission statement. Consequently, priorities shift between research and commercialization with neither NASA or stakeholder input There is a need to balance scientific research and commercialization against NASA-defined priorities. There is a definitive and very finite set of assets available. NASA and CASIS must define how these are to be allocated against the many needs of research, applied efforts, commercialization of products and stimulation of LEO commercialization.

Finding 3.2: The CASIS model for project selection is outdated. It needs to reflect not only quality but commercial promise. Lack of reliable access to ISS appears to be a major problem. Commercially, time is money. CASIS has developed an elaborate, in-house methodology for selection of US-sourced ISS science experiments. The selection criteria for funding ISS investigations appear to place considerable importance upon social aspects of ISS projects and insufficient value on commercialization and progressive improvement of scientific knowledge.

Finding 3.3: The process being used by CASIS for project selection is opaque. It involves their own staff, supplemented by several outside “experts” using a dubious economic graph tool. This methodology is unlike that of other major funds-granting agencies and does not appear to be well understood by NASA, the Implementation Partners, or the awardees.

Finding 3.4: Functionally, the relationship between NASA and CASIS appears to be devolving to the management (M&O) function specified in section 2.1.3 of the CA. It provides free access and utilization of instrumentation and facilities. NASA has driven CASIS to add the stimulus function to create its own R&D portfolio to meet metrics that are tied to utilization (e.g., number of PIs, publications) rather than to purpose.

Finding 3.5: Since its inception through FY18, CASIS has received approximately $109M through its CA with NASA. CASIS reports more than $180M of additional economic activity for the ISSNL1, which includes cost sharing from universities and companies for their programs and projects on the ISS, Implementation Partners investments to support ISSNL projects, contributions from other government agencies to stimulate research using the ISSNL, and private investment.

Finding 3.6: NASA has internal confusion regarding the delineation of basic or applied “research,” “industrialization,” and “commercialization.”

Finding 3.7: Meaningful long-term investment by the commercial sector (or other federal agencies) to develop a LEO economy will require a more proactive dialog between NASA, the ISSNL operator and interested commercial parties to realign ISSNL resource allocation to promote translational R&D on a larger scale. This will also allow the ISSNL operator to adopt more stringent performance criteria by the private sector in assessment of technical feasibility and readiness for downstream prototyping and rigorous analysis of the anticipated cost and time to reach go/no go decisions to commit large scale resources to achieve commercialization.

Finding C.1: Stimulating industrial activities in LEO will require more reliable access over the long-term.

Finding C.2: ISS alone is not sufficient to stimulate the commercial market. As a growing number of commercial space companies are providing low-cost and frequent access to suborbital and orbital space for humans and research payloads, it is important to fully utilize these capabilities to effectively stimulate the commercial market.

Finding C.3: Industrial R&D in microgravity is just one R&D tool for those companies -those multitude of tools compete for resources with each other inside companies. Proponents of using ISS need to be cognitive of the other R&D tools (e.g. Artificial Intelligence, etc.) to see if they can successfully compete within the company for resources by creating superior products in a cost-effective manner.

Finding C.4: The market timeframe for viable market needs reliability of access and clear IP terms. Smaller companies may not have the resources to reach out to new customers in microgravity. Larger companies need to see NASA as a partner in the longer game.

Finding C.5: The high cost and high risk of space missions, the imperative for comprehensive assessment of health risks for crew members and any prospect of evolution of self-sustaining commercial activities, will require a coherent systems-based, end-to-end approach involving diverse stakeholders that span the full spectrum from basic research discovery conducted by NASA, academia and industry to prototyping development of cost-effective commercial products and creation of new markets for space-based manufacturing.

Finding C.6: There is a lack of an integration mechanism (like IDIQ) to address strategic and operational barriers faced by companies and Implementation Partners to increase the reliability of access to space-based facilities.

Finding C.7: There is still significant need for low technology readiness level (TRL) R&D with a goal to reduce basic science findings to improved practice in the marketplace (manufacturing, clinical practice, etc.) Bifurcating the authority without clear joint planning, common NASA oversight and the development of a broad and integrated use community has had limited success. Conversely, SLPSRA has been stymied from similar issues, such as lack of funding, operational resources, and prioritization that has limited its capacity to execute.

Finding C.8: Restricting the ISSNL to non-NASA research may have reduced the Agency’s ability to stimulate disruptive research that improves astronaut health and safety.

Finding C.9: The requirement for CASIS to design and implement a STEM education program using ISSNL resources, while laudable in intent, adds to the challenge of productive allocation of scarce ISSNL resources.

Finding C.10: The biopharmaceutical, diagnostic and biomedical device industries are among the most highly regulated segments of the advanced technology economy. These regulatory policies will likely also apply to these product classes manufactured in space.


Recommendation 2.1: A normal business structure must be imposed or otherwise adopted immediately. Our reasoning is as follows:

  • The ISSNL resource is too important and time-constrained to hold hostage to poor operational management
  • Current management contractor has failed to deliver sufficient oversight (as originally intended to be embodied in the INLAC)
  • Development of perverse and non-functional operating structure
  • Lack of transparency in prioritization of critical resource allocation
  • Inability of current ISSNL management to increasingly serve the growing and complex environment of commercializing LEO

Recommendation 2.2: At a minimum, CASIS should seat a new board which understands its role (e.g. fiduciary, leadership selection), select a new CEO, and allow true CEO leadership. Business development and sourcing of new users should be the function of the CEO, not the board.

Recommendation 2.3: The changes in the statement of Board Responsibilities in the most recent CA should be maintained. The IRT endorses NASA’s decision to remove the paragraph setting marketing and research solicitation as responsibilities of individual Directors.

Recommendation 2.4: Any management contract for the ISSNL, with approval by NASA, should create and utilize criteria to evaluate projects and programs that adhere to principles of transparency in evaluation. In addition to science, the “value impact” of proposals should be evaluated by multiple external experts knowledgeable in the specific fields of research being proposed. These experts are located in major research universities, companies and special purpose institutes (e.g. RAND) in this country and aboard. Moving the value impact assessment to external review will increase transparency and improve community understanding of the process, as well reduce the internal management load.

Recommendation 2.5: Conflict resolution within the ISSNL operating structure needs to be built for scenarios that include the full continuum of conflicts that may arise with CASIS’s external users -to include both Implementation Partners and SLPSRA. Both CASIS and NASA should play a role in this process, working through the ISSNL Liaison.

Recommendation 2.6: CASIS needs to develop policies for programs to on-ramp and off-ramp the ISSNL. In addition, CASIS should create a policy to effectively on-ramp R&D from SLPSRA and off ramp R&D to Implementation Partners. CASIS should consider the well-vetted TRL model, with a potential entry point of TRL 4 and exit point of TRL 7.

Recommendation 2.7: We strongly recommend that the NASA liaison be the single point of contact between NASA and the operator of the ISSNL at a relatively high level – perhaps even reporting to the Administrator until the overall NASA culture has more fully embraced a unified approach to operating the ISSNL in and developed a more unified view of the ISSNL mission in today’s LEO economy.

Recommendation 2.8: The conduct and prioritization of basic research by SLPSRA within NASA were not productively coordinated with CASIS to identify potential commercialization opportunities and support CASIS outreach to potential industry partners.

Recommendation 2.9: Consistent with 2008 congressional authorization language, the INLAC construct should be established as a User Advisory Committee to include NASA, other federal agencies, Implementation Partners, and commercial users, that enables joint planning, information sharing and broad community input for both trouble-shooting and the creation and development of new opportunities. The User Advisory Committee could incorporate a Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) format for information exchange across all elements of the ISSNL stakeholders. This function must be convened by the ISSNL operator, but completely independent of the CASIS Board. The NASA-CASIS liaison should serve on the INLAC in a non-voting ex officio role.

Recommendation 3.1: The CA should be greatly simplified so that it is a flexible instrument that allows annual input by NASA (defining the “what”), easily measures annual performance of CASIS’ management of the ISSNL (the “how”), and a regular cadence of formal exchanges with the ISSNL user community. This revision should create brighter lines between CASIS and the basic research component of NASA, with significantly greater communication and joint planning between the two. When evaluating research that could accelerate space exploration and/or health and safety of astronauts, CASIS and NASA should have a defined and transparent process for joint scientific and value-impact assessment.

Recommendation 3.2: CASIS use of funding and access to do research, even if it is designed to ultimately be marketable, is in conflict with every model of successful commercialization. Low TRL activity will not attract commercial sponsorship. De-conflicting SLPSRA activity, the National Laboratory agenda, and the LEO commercialization agenda should be undertaken immediately, with consideration of the full R&D continuum – i.e. both R&D (SLPSRA), industrial development (ISSNL) and commercialization (Implementation Partners).

Recommendation 3.3: If NASA desires the ISSNL to operate as a National Laboratory in the traditional sense that advances NASA’s primary missions of exploration, science and astronaut health, then NASA should commission a study to consider, at a minimum:

  • Optimizing NASA management and oversight of both SLPSRA and the ISSNL to eliminate the current limitations of the authorizing language (i.e. for the ISSNL to do only non-NASA work);
  • Vastly strengthening NASA oversight to assure that its primary mission is satisfied, with mechanisms that allow NASA to pivot responsibilities tasked to ISSNL based on NASA needs (reviewed annually, at a minimum)
  • Potential duplication of services

Recommendation C.1: The ISSNL has the opportunity to maximize the utilization of the ISS as an “industrial incubator in LEO.” However, even with regular, reliable up-and-down mass to the ISS, a lack of access to regular, reliable flight opportunities on a variety of platforms (i.e, free flyers, suborbital platforms, etc.) will stymie the progress of commercialization in LEO.

Recommendation C.2: Future considerations should be given to how the commercialization of LEO mandate expands beyond the concept of an industrial incubator to additional platforms. We acknowledge that such activities are beyond the current scope of ISSNL authorization language. NASA can and should stimulate broad discussion among all stakeholders to develop a model for cross-platform (i.e., free flyers and suborbital platforms, etc.) considerations spanning the entire panorama of basic research to applied research to product development.

Recommendation C.3: The Government can help stimulate the commercialization of LEO by conducting a study or workshop on what would be necessary to have robust trans-atmospheric and orbital supply chain processes that support LEO industrialization. This should look at the complete system of potential platforms, policies, procedures and practices to be used by any commercial entity whether they are operating platforms or production processes and could include ISSNL as an option.

Recommendation C.4: With respect to commercialization activities, NASA should consider a more active approach that allows development of a clear set of steps leading from early science work to full product production and distribution. This will necessitate definition of progressive levels of required privacy and proprietary ownership of IP for their product(s).

Recommendation C.5: If NASA repositions the ISSNL as an industrial incubator in LEO, it should evaluate how the ISSNL can be used to support translational research that furthers the Agency’s exploration goals.