Several weeks ago I attended the 1st Annual International Space Station (ISS) Research and Development Conference in Denver, Colorado, coordinated by the American Astronautical Association in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). There were almost 400 in attendance with a good portion of the crowd having no experience with flying space research. It was really great to see so many new people interested in space!
The purpose of the three day conference was to showcase the exciting science and R&D possibilities of the ISS and provide an outline of funding sources and routes to getting your projects on the ISS. The first two days centered on previous and current ISS experiments, covering topics from life sciences, fluid dynamics, materials R&D, developing more efficient environmental and life support systems, to hyperspectral imaging devices and results from the well known Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. The last day consisted of workshops showing potential users the pathways to implement the ISS for research and an overview of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
Since I couldn’t possibly cram all the cool science I heard about into one post (you can find a good overview here), I thought I would present a run through of possibly something more beneficial: how to get your project on the ISS.
Science on the ISS? Me?
Do you need to be a genius to get your research on the ISS? Don’t tell anyone, but not really. If you have a unique, testable idea that can’t be carried out on Earth you stand a good chance of having your project funded and NASA will pay for the ride. How cool is that?
For ideas, there is always the obvious micro-g element, but your experiment could make use of the excellent vantage point of 220 miles above Earth for new geographical observations or with access to external platforms one could test things in the extreme heat, cold, radiation, and what astronaut Don Pettit refers to as “a vacuum with infinite pumping capability” of the space environment. Inside, the ISS is a well implemented laboratory with almost everything available that you would find in a research lab on Earth. For inspiration, comb through the ample amount of information on past projects at the ISS research website. With the ISS now averaging six crew members, about 35 hours/week are dedicated to doing science projects. Overall, the universe can literally be your playground and you have astronauts do your bidding. Mwah.
No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
O.K. so say you came up with an awesome idea, now what? Like all science or R&D, it’s expensive and even Elon Musk needed help getting his dream off the ground. Luckily, as an American researcher there are two sources of support for your ideas: NASA or CASIS.
NASA is interested in sponsoring research in several focused and practical areas that support their mission: human health, technology testing for enabling future exploration, life and physical sciences, and earth and space science. Funding opportunities are through solicitations posted throughout the year on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) website. If selected, NASA sees you as a partner in helping to accomplish their science and technological goals. A typical NSPIRES review and selection process takes about 200 days.
These peer reviewed proposals can be well funded and are sometimes for multi-year sessions. This route does require a bit of “practice” and I suggest first timers spend a fair amount of time familiarizing themselves with the process beforehand, either by using the tutorial and FAQ pages or by getting help from someone who has experience with the process. Also, being a government agency, NASA requires that your organization be registered with the Central Contract Registration (CCR) before submitting a proposal. I’ve also found NSPIRES solicitations come with little to no warning (the “Future Solicitations” box is always empty) and often give a short time to prepare. My advice is check the site often (or sign up for notification e-mails) and always have something ready to go.
In 2005 Congress designated the US portion of the ISS as a national laboratory and in 2010 signed the NASA Authorization Act providing funds “to support international and commercial collaboration and growth, research, and technology development to maximize the scientific return on the significant investment in the ISS.” Upon completion of the ISS, NASA awarded the nonprofit CASIS as the entity responsible for managing the national laboratory as well as acting as a conduit between NASA and the commercial, nonprofit, academic, government agencies and individual researchers wanting to perform science and technology R&D on the ISS. With $3 million dollars a year set aside for research, CASIS is well positioned to do just that.
How is this different than the NASA route? There are simply more options: you can obtain support through a CASIS proposal solicitation; use your own funding (i.e. NIH, NSF, or donations); you can submit an unsolicited proposal; and lastly other government agencies (i.e. DOD) can also use this path.
Due to limiting resources (launch opportunities, lab space, crew time, etc.), CASIS evaluates and prioritizes all proposals with a scientific and economic review. This is essentially the same kind of process any researcher would go through to gain access to any national lab facility, say a synchrotron for example. There is also a business evaluation team in place to help highly rated proposals find funding.
Currently, CASIS proposal interests are focused on biosciences, with their first ever call for solicitations posted in early July 2012 for protein crystallography in microgravity. Future bioscience requests will be focused on creating animal models for studying the effects of micro-g on living things (i.e. osteoporosis, muscle wasting), as well as a studies on immune functions.
CASIS is so new I can’t give you my opinion of their process, but I can tell you from interacting with their personnel, they are fully committed to helping you get your experiments on the ISS and in the fastest way possible. The process appears more streamlined than NSPIRES, and has a typical “acceptance to launch” time of around 18 months. I honestly love the idea that through CASIS, essentially any researcher, business, or entrepreneur with a great idea can fly on the ISS at an unprecedented speed (pun intended).
I Have a Brilliant Idea and Funding, I’m Ready for Launch!
Don’t blow your hold-down bolts just yet. It’s highly recommended that you work with an “implementation partner” (IP) to assist you with your science or R&D project. IP’s have decades of expereience that can help you in either designing and building a flight-worthy experimental apparatus or provide you with one that is already made to spec.
Say you have a project that involves mice, there are a few IP’s that already have flight ready mice habitats that you could use. Another advantage of an IP is that they handle most of the legendary 12 inches of paperwork required for flight, so you can focus strictly on your research design. I’ve done the paperwork once, and believe me it’s worth every penny to have the experts do it.
Poll Completed. You Are Go for Launch!
I hope this quick overview demonstrates that science and R&D on the ISS is a tangible goal. There are currently more opportunities than ever before, with NASA and CASIS wanting considerably to help facilitate your ISS project objectives. So, if you have ever been even remotely interested in space science, I greatly encourage you to give it a try. We can’t let the astronauts have all the fun up there, right?