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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson October 5, 2009

NASA reaches out to industry, academia for space station projects

Barack Obama made several space-related promises during the presidential campaign. One of those was to "enlist other federal agencies, industry and academia to develop innovative scientific and technological research projects on the International Space Station."

The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the U.S segment of the ISS as a national laboratory, and this legislation, according to NASA, directed the space agency to develop a plan to "increase the utilization of the ISS by other federal entities and the private sector." On the ISS Web site, NASA says that "as the nation's newest national laboratory, the ISS will further strengthen relationships among NASA, other federal entities, and private sector leaders in the pursuit of national priorities for the advancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The ISS National Laboratory will also open new paths for the exploration and economic development of space."

So the authority to move in this direction was already in place when the Obama administration took office. On Aug. 6, 2009, the new administration moved matters forward.

On that date, it formally invited "federal, state and local government entities, and ... U.S. private entities (including, but not limited to, commercial firms, nonprofit entities, and academic institutions)" to propose projects in "basic and applied research, technology development and industrial processing" that could be performed on the International Space Station."

"Proposed activities should involve [research and development], including, but not limited to, life sciences, sensors, communication equipment, engineering testbeds, spacecraft design and testing, or education and should demonstrate potential benefit to the public, such as development of future products and services contributing to U.S. industrial capacity and economic growth or improving [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education," the request said. The window for proposals is open through Dec. 31, 2014, and the outside parties, not the federal government, will be responsible for financing their own activities.

This approach was not specifically taken up by the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. This panel — more commonly known as the Augustine Committee after its chairman, Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin — did, however, reaffirm its support for the space station itself in a 12-page summary report released on Sept. 8, 2009.

"Now that the ISS is nearly completed and is staffed by a full crew of six, its future success will depend on how well it is used," the panel's summary report said. "Up to now, the focus has been on assembling ISS, and this has come at the expense of using the space station. Utilization should have first priority in the years ahead."

Either way, the NASA solicitation amounts to a major step forward. The partnerships are not under way yet, but Obama only promised to "enlist other federal agencies, industry and academia to develop innovative scientific and technological research projects on the International Space Station." By issuing the the solicitation, the administration has enlisted support from those groups. For this reason, we rate this a Promise Kept.

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