NASA Tries to Fix the Screwed up ISS National Laboratory Research Program

Editor’s Note: NASA Associate Administrator Douglas Loverro unveiled the following news on Monday during a members-only AIAA webinar in which media participation was apparently limited by that private organization. (As near as I can tell, I did not receive an invite.) The news was not officially announced until Wednesday.

This is a bad way to announce such a major change, especially considering the importance of the space station and problems NASA has experienced with CASIS and the ISS National Laboratory. The approach undermines the openness under which NASA has traditionally operated. I sincerely hope this type of event is not repeated.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is committed to effective management of the International Space Station as a resource for the American people through the International Space Station National Laboratory (ISSNL). The ISSNL returns benefits to Earth and to the nation by supporting important research and development, science, and education and outreach projects, and particularly by enabling research projects that can lead to new commercial space applications in support of the agency’s overall strategy to enable a robust low-Earth orbit economy.

NASA recently shared its response to the findings and recommendations from an Independent Review Team (IRT) commissioned to evaluate the operations of the ISSNL and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit organization NASA has contracted to manage the ISSNL.

One of six action items NASA identified in its response was to identify an ISS National Lab program executive at NASA Headquarters as the primary liaison to CASIS. As a first step in NASA’s response, Alex MacDonald, NASA’s chief economist, will also serve as the agency’s program executive for the ISSNL. In this capacity he will work closely with CASIS to lead the implementation of NASA’s forward plan as the agency outlined in its response to the IRT to bring the ISSNL into a new era.

“Alex has the business background and leadership skills to transform the ISS National Lab, and I am confident he will be able to accomplish these goals,” said Doug Loverro, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters. “Assigning the agency’s chief economist reflects the high priority we place on using the ISS National Lab to effectively produce breakthroughs that can create economic growth and improve lives on Earth.”

As NASA’s single point of contact with CASIS, the ISSNL program executive is a critical position, and MacDonald will be responsible for accomplishing the near-term milestones associated with NASA’s plan to bring the ISS National Lab into a new era as outlined in the other five actions:   

  1. Work with CASIS on the best roles and composition of the CASIS Board of Directors and leadership
  2. Support CASIS’ establishment of a User Advisory Committee to provide input to the organization about how best to manage resources
  3. Create transparent project and program evaluation and prioritization processes
  4. Update strategic priorities for the ISS National Lab on an annual basis
  5. Work with CASIS to optimize the allocation of ISS National Lab resources to meet strategic priorities

MacDonald assumed the role as program executive, ISS National Lab, effective April 15, 2020.