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NASA offers Congress assurances over space station

issPosted 3:30 pm EDT

Both NASA and its Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel believe Russian launches to the International Space Station (ISS) can be safely restarted, officials have told US lawmakers in a hearing on Capitol Hill today.

The assurances, which follow a crash by an unmanned supply vehicle on launch from the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan, come as the research community is still waiting for a solicitation for possible experiments to fly to the station following its completion and the selection of a new contractor to manage its research operations. The next launch, a resupply by an unmanned Soyuz rocket, is scheduled for 14 October.

The cooperative agreement to run research on the station states that NASA will provide for experiments to be ferried to the station, says Jeanne Becker, Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the successful bidder. “We’re very excited. There is definitely space available [on the station] for a lot of great studies,” said Becker in an interview with Nature shortly before the hearing.


NASA finalized negotiations with CASIS, a non-profit based in the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on 31 August. The 10-year cooperative agreement with the agency is worth $15 million per year.

The ISS is thought likely to be useful for a range of studies ranging from biological experiments on tissue culture and pathogens in microgravity to materials science and the physics of fluids. As Nature reported in 2010, the completion of the station offers new potential for dozens or hundreds of experiments to fly. NASA and Congress have indicated a preference for research that can offer taxpayers a return on their investments in the station and Becker says CASIS conceived an approach of funding along “research pathways” that could link fundamental research to possible products.

In the hearing, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission, told lawmakers that NASA is satisfied the cause of the August crash was, as the Russians have said, contamination of a fuel line that evaded a quality inspection. The significance of this, added Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer, the Chairman of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, is that it is not a design flaw that needs to ground the Soyuz rockets that are used to bring astronauts and supplies to the station. Gerstenmaier admitted, in response to a question from the Committee chairman, Republican Ralph Hall, that the current Soyuz schedule of four flights per year is putting some pressure on the Russians.

Lawmakers, who began the hearing concerned whether NASA had sufficient insight into the Russian investigation, seemed reassured by the NASA statements, but expressed concern about the future when the ISS will be primarily served by commercial flights as to whether NASA and Congress will have access to documentation and proprietary information it would need to assess accidents and accident risk.

Image: The ISS seen from the shuttle / NASA

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