ISS News: April 2012 Archives

Scientists discover enzyme that could slow part of the aging process in astronauts -- and the elderly, FASEB Journal

"New research published online in the FASEB Journal suggests that a specific enzyme, called 5-lipoxygenase, plays a key role in cell death induced by microgravity environments, and that inhibiting this enzyme will likely help prevent or lessen the severity of immune problems in astronauts caused by spaceflight. Additionally, since space conditions initiate health problems that mimic the aging process on Earth, this discovery may also lead to therapeutics that extend lives by bolstering the immune systems of the elderly."

Keith's note: When NASA flew John Glenn on his second space mission, much mention was made of the possible connections between aging on Earth and effects observed in astronauts and other organisms in space. Indeed, one of NASA's biggest PR thrusts has always been the applicability of space-based research (especially biotech) upon life back on Earth. Well, here is one example. Interestingly, FASEB, which published this research, has a long history of often criticizing NASA's human space life science program. So there must be something to this research, right?

You'd think that NASA, CASIS etc. would be playing up these results, right? No. Not at all. Just silence. You see, NASA no longer tracks this sort of news (but they used to). Nor do NASA and CASIS seem to have the collective or individual smarts to understand that the best way to garner support for future ISS research is to stay current with the benefits of past research - and tell everyone exactly what the benefits of that research is - as soon as that knowledge becomes available.

This is cluelessness in the extreme. Indeed, not making mention of this at NASA.gov and at CASIS borders on professional negligence.

Oh yes, full disclosure: 15 years ago (ouch!), I heaped my fair share of criticism on NASA for John Glenn's flight (see below). While there is no obvious connection between these new research results and the experiments conducted on Glenn's shuttle flight, it would seem that Sen. Glenn (apparently) still knew something that I did not ...

House Appropriations Commitee FY 2013: CASIS and ISS (excerpt)

"An important element in the decision making about the long term status of ISS is whether it can demonstrate sufficient research value to justify the continuation of its operating budget. Currently, the fraction of the overall ISS budget devoted to research is extremely small, and plans for leveraging outside funding through the ISS National Lab are moving slowly because the National Lab's manager, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), is still establishing its management and governance structures ..."

Blue Origin Tests Design of Next-Generation Spacecraft

"Blue Origin successfully tested the design of its next-generation Space Vehicle, completing a series of wind tunnel tests to refine the aerodynamic characteristics of the spacecraft's unique biconic shape. The tests were carried out as part of Blue Origin's partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under the agency's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Blue Origin is designing the Space Vehicle to provide safe, affordable transport of up to seven astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station."

Astronaut Don Pettit's Diary of a Space Zucchini

"January 5, 2012: I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me. I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart. I am the kind that makes little boys gag at the dinner table thus being sent to bed without their dessert. I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini - and I am in space."

Keith's note: When I was in high school I was mesmerized by a film that is often relegated to being a "cult classic" "Silent Running". While the premise is from the 1970's popular mindset, the premise is simple: a bunch of plants and animals are kept alive in space in giant greenhouses. I soon went on to become a biologist - eventually a space biologist at NASA - and these images from the film were always on my mind.

Keith's note: Sources report that ProOrbis is considering taking formal legal action against the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). It is expected that this will be made public in the very near future. The specifics of this possible lawsuit are unclear. But it would beinstructive to recall that when Jeanne Becker, the first Executive Director of CASIS resigned, she said:

"Unrealistic expectations have been levied collectively by Congressional staffers, by NASA (Mr. Uhran) and by ProOrbis. These pressures have placed unnecessary stress and hardship on CASIS, not only organizationally butalso on management, forcing a defensive posture with constant focus on mitigation strategies to fend off political threats of the elimination of CASIS. ... Now, for unknown reasons, following selection of that proposal andstand up of the organization, the Space Florida interim board persists in pursuing engagement of ProOrbis on behalf of CASIS, with CASIS management forced to bear the responsibility of mitigating ensuing organizationalrisks occurring as a result of the interim board's actions."

To which ProOrbis responded

"However, since taking on this role, [Dr. Becker] has not engaged ProOrbis in the stand-up activities of CASIS as was contemplated. Issues of conflict of interest for all the principal parties were satisfactorily addressed inthe Cooperative Agreement and provisions were put in place to mitigate any potential conflicts."

Jeanne DiFrancesco from ProOrbis developed a significant portion of the procurement package for NASA's ISS National Laboratory non-profit partner: the National Laboratory Reference Model. Oddly, DiFrancesco andProOrbis ended up as a major part of the winning team's bid (CASIS). How is it that a contractor that NASA specifically uses to write part of a solicitation is then allowed to bid for - and win - the contract awarded inresponse to the very same procurement they helped craft?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has already been asked to look into this. The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Office of General Counsel (OGC) are also looking into this as are several congressional offices.

So here's the picture to contemplate: While the International Space Station orbits overhead, complete after two decades and ready for us to use it, we collectively fumble the process of tapping its great potential back onEarth. Lawsuits and investigations by GAO, OIG, OGC and others will inevitably hobble whatever progress CASIS would have otherwise made - just as CASIS was starting to make visible steps toward getting itself ready to do the important tasks that it has been assigned.

Net result: Lawyers and accountants will kill the usefulness of the International Space Station - for all of us.

Earlier posts on CASIS

Keith's note: In today's media telecon with NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati and Chief Technologist Mason Peck, Abdalati mentioned a letter that had been sent to CASIS wherein NASA "challenged CASIS to demonstrate how they will honor their cooperative agreement with NASA" and that asked them to "drum up 3 partners or investigations by the end of the year". I have requested a copy of the correspondence between NASA and CASIS.

Hearing Notes: Charles Bolden Testifies on NASA's FY 2013 Budget (22 March 2012)

"Rep. Wolf suggested that NASA needs to look at CASIS carefully saying "if they are not with it in 30-45 days we should pull it and give it to NSF". Bolden replied that a letter was being sent to CASIS to remind them of their milestones and "if they they do not meet milestones we will find another way"."

Keith's update: Through the persistence of space journalist Irene Klotz, NASA has released these letters:

Letter from NASA to CASIS regarding Notification of Actions Following Dr. Becker's Resignation

"Moreover, the functions identified in the Cooperative Agreement and the milestones in the Annual Program Plan (APP) are critical given the limited amount of time remaining to do research on the International Space Station (ISS). NASA would like assurances from the Board that CASIS will be able to meet the milestones in the APP. The agency also requests the interim board explain in writing how these milestones will be met."

Letter from CASIS to NASA: Response regarding Notification of Actions Following Dr. Becker's Resignation

"The following are key elements of performance that we will report on at the end of the initial first two quarters of operation. In general, they represent progress on the key goals of facing the market, finding new customers for the ISS, and standing up the organization to service existing and new markets:"

Letter from NASA to CASIS Regarding 2012 Annual Program Plan

"We are evaluating your response and will get back to you with a formal NASA position."

Doubts linger about space station's science potential, Orlando Sentinel

"It's the tip of the iceberg," said Marybeth Edeen, NASA manager of the station's national laboratory. The inability to completely fill NASA's science racks, she said, is simply one of priorities. Up until now, NASA has been more focused on building the station. Indeed, the station crew -- which expanded from three to six members in 2009 -- now spends about 50 hours a week on science, as opposed to just three hours a week in 2008. "Our goal is to get the racks fully utilized," she said. To help do that, NASA hired a nonprofit group last summer called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage the national lab and find new experiments.

Keith's note: NASA has had well over a decade to figure out how to fully utilize the ISS. And yet they haven't done so. The ISS was declared "complete" some time ago. So ... what is the hold up?

CASIS and NanoRacks Announce Expanded ISS Research Capabilities, Nanoracks

"The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the non-profit organization managing the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, today announced a deal with NanoRacks, LLC, to reserve space on the first commercial platform available for researchers outside the ISS in the extreme environments of space."

CASIS and NanoRacks Close Deal to Use Commercial Research Platform in the Extremes of Space, CASIS

"In June, CASIS will issue a formal solicitation to the research community and private enterprise for their proposals to use this one-of-a-kind platform for anything from earth observation to materials, and biological sciences."

Commercial Platform Offers Exposure at Space Station< NASA

"The contributions by NanoRacks and Astrium are the most recent example of NASA efforts to expand the station's research capacity through innovative partnerships with commercial companies."

Space station used for Ardbeg distillery experiments

"Experiments using malt from the Ardbeg distillery on Islay are being carried out on the International Space Station to see how it matures without gravity. Compounds of unmatured malt were sent to the station in an unmanned cargo spacecraft in October last year, along with particles of charred oak. Scientists want to understand how they interact at close to zero gravity. NanoRacks LLC, the US company behind the research, has said understanding the influence of gravity could help a number of industries, including the whisky industry, to develop new products in the future."

Important Scientific Experiment: Can Scotch Mature In Space?, Forbes

"The Ardbeg Distillery has been distilling and maturing Scotch Whisky for over 300 years, and you don't last that long without innovating. It's no doubt that drive that has led Ardbeg to pursue its latest experiment - to see whether Scotch can properly mature while it's in space, on board the International Space Station."

Keith's note: Obvious jokes not withstanding [Larger view], this is an interesting commercial use of the ISS - if somewhat unconventional - one that has attracted actual private investment at a time when NASA's scorecard is rather lacking in this regard. Imagine this: an actual biotech process that is being investigated in the unqiue environment of space. Fermentation and distillation are industrial processes with many other applications than just making spirits. Outcome? Who knows. Only the experimenters have commented. Does NASA or CASIS make note of this? Of course not. Will they mention it in the future? Doubtful. Why bother? No one has ever asked the ISS National Lab or CASIS folks to be responsive or innovative. Why start now?

Previous CASIS postings

CASIS Names Dr. Timothy J. Yeatman Interim Chief Scientist, CASIS

"The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit organization managing research onboard the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, today named renowned surgeon and researcher Timothy J. Yeatman, M.D., as CASIS Interim Chief Scientist. Additionally, Dr. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist, aerospace consultant, and former NASA executive, has been appointed CASIS Scientific Advisor. Doctors Yeatman and Stern will lead research initiatives for the organization.

Hearing Notes: Charles Bolden Testifies on NASA's FY 2013 Budget (22 March 2012)

"Rep. Wolf suggested that NASA needs to look at CASIS carefully saying "if they are not with it in 30-45 days we should pull it and give it to NSF". Bolden replied that a letter was being sent to CASIS to remind them of their milestones and "if they they do not meet milestones we will find another way"."

Ohio Delegation Calls on NASA To Fire ISS Nonprofit, Space News

"Members of Ohio's congressional delegation urged NASA to strip a Florida nonprofit of its status as manager of the international space station's national laboratory and give the job to a Cleveland-based group instead."

Brown Urges NASA Leadership To Reconsider Contract For The International Space Station National Laboratory

"CASIS was hired to develop research pathways that connect basic and applied research, and develop a pipeline of funding and projects to support the wide range of research opportunities available in the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. It is the general impression of the situation that CASIS is neither performing this type of work, nor actively heading toward being able to perform this type of work. Because of the limited life of the ISS, it may be time to consider a switch in leadership for this activity."

Keith's note: It has been 14 days since Wolf's comments. The clock is ticking for CASIS. The NASA Inspector General's Office is looking into CASIS issues and a request for a GAO study of CASIS is being considered in Congress. And now the Ohio delegation is calling for NASA's agreement with CASIS to be cancelled. Do these appointments announced today by CASIS count as being "with it" (as Rep. Wolf suggested) or is this just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Stay tuned.

Earlier CASIS posts

Resignation Letter from CASIS Executive Director Jeanne L. Becker

"Unrealistic expectations have been levied collectively by Congressional staffers, by NASA (Mr. Uhran) and by ProOrbis. These pressures have placed unnecessary stress and hardship on CASIS, not only organizationally but also on management, forcing a defensive posture with constant focus on mitigation strategies to fend off political threats of the elimination of CASIS. ... Now, for unknown reasons, following selection of that proposal and stand up of the organization, the Space Florida interim board persists in pursuing engagement of ProOrbis on behalf of CASIS, with CASIS management forced to bear the responsibility of mitigating ensuing organizational risks occurring as a result of the interim board's actions. "

ProOrbis Statement re: CASIS Director Resignation

"However, since taking on this role, [Dr. Becker] has not engaged ProOrbis in the stand-up activities of CASIS as was contemplated. Issues of conflict of interest for all the principal parties were satisfactorily addressed in the Cooperative Agreement and provisions were put in place to mitigate any potential conflicts."

Keith's note: Jeanne DiFrancesco from ProOrbis developed a significant portion of the procurement package for NASA's ISS National Laboratory non-profit partner: the National Laboratory Reference Model. Oddly, DiFrancesco and ProOrbis ended up as a major part of the winning team's bid (CASIS). How is it that a contractor that NASA specifically uses to write part of a solicitation is then allowed to bid for - and win - the contract awarded in response to the very same procurement they helped craft? In Dr. Becker's resignation letter, and ProOrbis' response, this issue of potential conflict of interest was raised. Indeed, the core thrust of Becker's departure, in part, seems to be her frustration in being unable to retain the non-profit status (and Intent) of CASIS against external pressures to engage in overt commercial activities via ProOrbis.

Curiously, NASA's Mark Uhran and Jeanne DiFrancesco (Principal of ProOrbis, LLC and the President and CEO of ProOrbis Ventures, LLC.) are on the advisory board of U.S Rare Earths.. U.S Rare Earths is a for-profit mining company. How is it that one of the main government officials behind the CASIS procurement (still a NASA civil servant a manging various ISS activities) and a senior representative of the company that was part of the team that won the CASIS contract are allowed to participate in a external business activity?

Earlier CASIS postings


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This page is an archive of entries in the ISS News category from April 2012.

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