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CASIS Had A Bad Week In Washington

By Keith Cowing
April 3, 2016
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CASIS Had A Bad Week In Washington

Keith’s note: CASIS (Center for Advancement of Science in Space, Inc.) came to Washington this past week to talk about their management of science and commercial activity aboard the International Space Station National Laboratory. The first stop for CASIS was an event at the National Academy of Sciences on low Earth orbit commerce on Wednesday. The presentation that CASIS gave was their standard Powerpoint chart collection totally lacking in any meaningful information other than what you’d expect to see in a brochure.
As it always does, the presentation glossed over some important facts yet contained some outright inaccuracies about funding that CASIS avoided discussing. Since the Academy audience – as well as most of the other audiences that CASIS presents to – was not inclined to ask probing questions, CASIS sailed through their presentation and then sat down.
The next day the CASIS entourage, led by President and Executive Director Greg Johnson, showed up at the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting. Things did not go so well for them at the NAC. Within minutes of starting to talk, NAC members started to pepper Johnson with questions- questions that he was unable and/or unwilling to answer. It went downhill from there.
The CASIS presentation to the NAC did not provide the basic answers that the NAC membership sought. Committee members repeatedly asked CASIS’ Johnson what the CASIS budget was, where it came from, and how much money CASIS had raised. You could hear the growing frustration in the voices of the NAC members the more that CASIS dodged their questions. Eventually CASIS’ Johnson admitted that their budget was $15 million a year and that it all comes from NASA. When probed about fundraising that they had been so overt about in their presentation charts, Johnson eventually admitted that philanthropy had not worked for CASIS (in other words simply asking for money was not working). Johnson, with help from David Roberts, their lead scientist, then immediately started to crow again about all the money that CASIS had raised. This contradicted their prior statements. Further questioning eventually got Johnson and Roberts to admit that the money that they raised did not go to CASIS but rather, that funds from a sponsoring company went directly to the payload developer (which is not a bad thing).
CASIS’ repeated refusal to speak clearly on the topic of its income, funding, grants, and operations became problematical for the NAC. When pressed further on their income CASIS said that they were not allowed to generate “revenue” (even though their IRS returns clearly show that they did generate revenue albeit only a little). When the NAC members asked for more details on what CASIS was funding CASIS emphatically stated that they are not a “funding” organization. Moments later CASIS staff showed slides that talked about funding.

After the NAC members had pushed CASIS multiple times on this, HEOMD AA Bill Gerstenmaier jumped in and said that the era of offering grants (by CASIS) was at an end and that CASIS was now trying to work toward getting external entities like companies to provide direct grants to payload developers to offset their costs. NASA would still be paying for payload integration, launch, and crew operations, but that this initial step would hopefully be followed by larger grants that would start to chip away at these other costs. The ideal goal, according to Gerstenmaier (and to some extent by CASIS), was to entice private companies to spend more money on space research after seeing that these initial efforts had borne fruit. Building upon this initial success, so theNASA/CASIS plan goes, companies with larger funds at hand would be prompted to spend much more money and these funds would be used to offset costs that were traditionally borne by NASA e.g. launch and operations.
Given that CASIS staff were consistently oblique in the way that they answered simple questions, the NAC was left with some residual skepticism about what CASIS is and what it does at the end of the CASIS presentation. This led to a discussion by the NAC that then led to the formulation of a NAC statement suggesting that CASIS be subject to a review by an external organization with demonstrated expertise in managing a national laboratory and its scientific activities. Another issue that arose was how CASIS picked the projects that it funded. Other than saying that they did multi-level peer review there was no clear description of the “why” of the CASIS selection process other than making life better on Earth. DIscussions about the lifetime of the ISS and how it should be used to prepare for human missions to Mars led to another discussion as to whether CASIS research is aiding that long term goal or interfering with it. No clear answer was forthcoming from CASIS.
The NAC resumed their discussion of CASIS issues on Friday. After some word smithing they adopted this recommendation:

Recommendation: Finding on Allocation of Resources for ISS Research Required for the Journey To Mars
The Council recommends that NASA conduct an internal evaluation of the top priority research ISS directly related to the Journey to Mars and determine whether some portion of the resources (including crew time, up-mass, and dollars) applied to the ISS National Laboratory could be used to more rapidly advance the Journey to Mars.
Major reasons for Proposing the Recommendation
As articulated by the Administrator and various NASA public documents, the journey to Mars is NASA’s top exploration goal.
Research for the Journey to Mars that utilizes the International Space Station (ISS) must be concentrated in the next 8 years, before NASA’s human exploration focus shifts away from ISS utilization. Beyond the operational funding, launch up-mass and crew time for ISS research are the most limited resources.
The Council notes that the ISS National Laboratory has been allocated launch up-mass and at least 50% of ISS crew time for research that may eventually have potential for commercial benefits. The Council has also been told by NASA that a successful transition from the “Earth Reliant” phase to the “Proving Ground” is dependent at least in part on the success of attracting future commercial users of the ISS and/or the availability of commercial LEO laboratory capability that NASA could use. The Council therefore feels that it would be beneficial for the agency to better understand the effect that the resources being devoted to the ISS National Laboratory might have on the important research need to reduce technology and human health risk for the Journey to Mars.
As additional information we provide a section of the original legislation that allows for the allocation to the ISS National Lab to be altered as needed 1
Consequences of No Action on the Proposed Recommendation:
The Journey to Mars may be delayed as resources are deployed for commercialization.

1 That language is in section 504(d)(2) See bolded portion:
(2) ADDITIONAL RESEARCH CAPABILITIES. – If any NASA research plan is determined to require research capacity onboard the ISS beyond the percentage allocated under paragraph (1), such research plan shall be prepared in the form of a requested research opportunity to be submitted to the process established under this section for the consideration of proposed research within the capacity allocated to the ISS national laboratory. A proposal for such a research plan may include the establishment of partnerships with non-NASA institutions eligible to propose research to be conducted within the ISS national laboratory capacity. Until September 30, 2020, the official or employee designated under subsection (b) may grant an exception to this requirement in the case of a proposed experiment considered essential for purposes of preparing for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, as determined by joint agreement between the organization with which the Administrator enters into a cooperative agreement under subsection (a) and the official or employee designated under subsection (b).
The “official designated under subsection (b)” is the NASA Liaison, who is Sam Scimemi.”

After approving this first recommendation the NAC moved on to consider a second draft recommendation that dealt with examining how CASIS operates – especially how it set priorities, makes decisions, and measures results. This is the draft recommendation under consideration:

Recommendation: NASA should initiate a study by a qualified industrial development organization to inform CASIS of best practices in the development of new industries.
Major Reasons for Proposing the Recommendation:
The commercial development of Loe Earth Orbit space is an integral part of NASA’s vision. The CASIS organization has been developed to, among other goals, facilitate the development of commerce in Low Earth Orbit. During the CASIS presentation to the Council, it was not apparent that the goals of the organization are being effectively prosecuted. The Council believes that CASIS could be more effective if it were to receive the best advice possible from organizations which have been successful in related activities.
Consequences of No Action on the Proposed Recommendation:
The development of low cost facilities and transportation for NASA use in LEO may not be available in a timely manner to support the needs of NASA’s Mars exploration activity.”

Some of the NAC membership felt that this recommendation was being a bit too proscriptive and that it should be watered down or not issued. Many more NAC members supported a firm stance on this issue. Given that there is a shrinking window whereby the ISS will be operation NAC members felt that it was important to review the situation and, if need be, make recommendations to NASA how to adjust things with CASIS.
The wording in the first recommendation gets into the issue of prioritization, so other NAC members started to look for a third alternative. The NAC eventually decided to table this second recommendation for the time being and to send a “fact finding mission” to CASIS to examine these issues are report back to the NAC. Some NAC members discussed making the CASIS issue one that the NAC might take on as a project for several years and that the NAC might need to be adjusted to bring on commercialization expertise.
A number of NAC members stated rather bluntly that they were disappointed with the presentation that Greg Johnson and CASIS had made and that it was not the presentation that they expected or deserved. NAC members also said that Johnson et al were simply not answering some rather basic questions and that this reluctance/inability to answer such basic questions caused the members to become concerned about CASIS’ ability to prioritize and manage the tasks before it. Members also faulted the NAC for not being more specific as to what they wanted CASIS to talk about.
NAC Members expressed interest in having CASIS present to the NAC again, possibly at the next meeting, based on a more specific request for information and the upcoming fact finding mission visit by NAC members.
So the ball is now in CASIS’ court. CASIS staff clearly fumbled on the manner with which they presented themselves and how they answered some routine questions – questions that one would rightfully expect to be asked. It almost seemed at times as if CASIS had no idea what the NAC is or what it does. If CASIS can show the NAC that they do know what they are doing, that they are providing something of clear, measurable value, and be responsive to questions then they probably have a chance to restore confidence amongst the NAC membership. But if the arrogant and often ambivalent disinterest with which CASIS conducted itself at this NAC meeting does not disappear they may find that the NAC makes recommendations that will alter what CASIS does in the future.
The International Space Station is a terrible thing to waste.
Related stories:
For a recent examination of issues surrounding CASIS see “CASIS Is Not The Best Way To Use a Space Station
For information about CASIS’ problems with cutting edge technology see “CASIS Still Ignores Commercial Research on ISS“, “NASA and CASIS Chase Old Research Paradigms In Orbit“, and “Sometimes NASA Has Technology SpinINs“.
For an analysis of CASIS outreach metrics see “Trying To Understand CASIS Press and Social Media Impact
For an ongoing report on CASIS’ fascination with golf see “Important Golf in Space Announcement from CASIS“.
For more information on CASIS grants and awards see “Are CASIS Funding “Commitments” Just Smoke and Mirrors?“.
For more information on CASIS finances see “CASIS Has No Idea How To Raise Money – Only How To Spend It
For more information on CASIS salaries see “Examining Staff and Board Member Salaries at CASIS

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.