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Fledgling NASA Nonprofit Starts To Lift Off

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 9:24 am

A new nonprofit organization that's supposed to take charge of expanding scientific research on the International Space Station has had a rocky first year but now is starting to show what it can do.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space just signed one agreement with a company not traditionally linked to research in space: the sporting goods company Cobra Puma Golf.

With the space station now complete after more than a decade of construction at a cost of around $100 billion, attention has turned to how to best use the station.

CASIS was established to drum up interest in doing experiments by folks outside NASA, including people who work at private companies, universities or other federal agencies.

Or, as CASIS puts it in a promotional video, the mission is to "seek out those ready to put their ideas into orbit and to get them there."

How CASIS Can Work

"There's some things that a nonprofit organization can do that NASA as a government entity can't do," says Marybeth Edeen, a manager at NASA's space station program.

A nonprofit can go out and talk with companies and make a case for how research in orbit could potentially help their bottom line, Edeen says. A nonprofit can also raise money from investors or charities.

The idea is that NASA will provide $15 million a year to get CASIS started, Edeen says, and then "they go out and get funding from other sources to stimulate and use [the] station in ways that currently aren't possible given the NASA budget."

Congress told NASA to set up this kind of nonprofit a couple of years ago. Different groups submitted proposals, and NASA announced last July that it had picked CASIS. But on March 5, CASIS announced that its director had resigned after just months on the job.

Congressional Scrutiny

Some lawmakers have been wondering what's going on.

At a hearing later in March, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., asked the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, what grade he would give CASIS on its progress so far. Bolden said it was too soon to tell.

"I'd give them a D-plus overall," says Keith Cowing, who runs the website NASAwatch.com. He worked for the agency in the early days of the space station program and has been a persistent critic of CASIS.

"They're making incremental progress, but I just don't think they're going fast enough," he says. "I don't think that they've engaged the people who have decades of experience in doing research in space. And I'm a little frustrated that they haven't gotten that message."

But the leadership at CASIS says the organization has actually accomplished a lot. Jim Royston, who serves as its interim director while a search goes on to fill the position permanently, says CASIS has hired more than 30 people, set up a website and talked to more than 100 companies about space station research.

"We did all these things in parallel," Royston says.

As far as the criticism goes, he says, "there was some pressure in the beginning, and I think, you know, that's a growing pain that many, many, many startup organizations actually have."

Much At Stake

Royston says CASIS is now moving beyond the startup phase. Just last week, it issued its first call for research proposals.

And the agreement with Cobra Puma Golf shows that CASIS can interest companies that make everyday consumer products, says Bobby Block, a CASIS spokesman.

A lot of advanced materials are already used in golf balls and clubs, he says.

"Most of them are made from materials that actually come from the aerospace industry," he says.

Block says Cobra Puma Golf "wanted to take an active role and get closer to research to kind of push the materials and see how space could develop them further."

Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and former NASA official who recently became a scientific adviser for CASIS, says people need to give this new organization a fair chance.

"CASIS has to succeed, because for it not to succeed would be a huge setback for the International Space Station program," he says.

Stern recently wrote a commentary defending CASIS from critics who want it replaced with some other organization. Stern says if NASA pulled the plug on CASIS, it would waste precious time that would be better spent bringing new research to the International Space Station.

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Every 90 minutes the international space station circles the Earth. Building this research facility took more than a decade and around $100 billion. Now that construction is complete, attention has shifted to how best to use it. About a year ago, NASA selected a new nonprofit organization to take charge of expanding scientific research on the station. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, the group has had a rocky start.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The international space station, humanity's lasting home in space in the ultimate emerging market.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: This is a promotional video for a nonprofit called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: CASIS' mission is to seek out those ready to put their ideas into orbit and to get them there. Welcome to CASIS, bringing home the magic of space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: CASIS is supposed to drum up interest in doing experiments onboard the station by folks outside of NASA, like private companies and researchers at universities. Marybeth Edeen is a manager at NASA.

MARYBETH EDEEN: There are some things that a nonprofit organization can do that NASA as a government entity can't do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says a nonprofit can go out and talk with companies and make a case for how research in orbit could potentially help their bottom line. A nonprofit can also raise money from investors or charities.

EDEEN: They go out and get funding from other sources to stimulate and use station in ways that currently aren't possible given the NASA budget.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Congress told NASA to set up this kind of nonprofit a couple of years ago. Different groups submitted proposals. Last July, NASA picked CASIS. NASA is providing seed money - $15 million per year to get CASIS started. But a few months ago, its director resigned and some lawmakers have been wondering what's been going on.

Frank Wolf is a Republican representative from Virginia. At a recent hearing, he asked the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, to grade CASIS on its progress so far.

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK WOLF: A C or an A or where would that grading be now?

CHARLES BOLDEN: Congressman - and I'm not trying to - I would have to consult with...

WOLF: The reason I ask you - and I'm not going to make you give them a grade then if you don't want to give them a grade, but it's $100 billion that was spent.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: If you ask Keith Cowing to give CASIS a grade, he does not hesitate.

KEITH COWING: D-plus. I'd give them a D-plus overall.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cowing runs the website NASAwatch.com. He worked for NASA in the early days of the space station program. He's been a persistent critic of CASIS.

COWING: They're making incremental progress, but I just don't think they're going fast enough. I don't think that they've engaged the people who have decades of experience in doing research in space. And I'm a little frustrated that they haven't gotten that message.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the leadership at CASIS says the organization has actually accomplished a lot. Jim Royston is serving as its interim director. He says they've hired over 30 people, set up a website, talked to over 100 companies about space station research.

JIM ROYSTON: So we did all these things in parallel. And there was some pressure in the beginning. And I think, you know, that's a growing pain that many, many, many startup organizations actually have.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Royston says they're now moving beyond the startup phase. Just last week, CASIS issued its first call for research proposals. It also announced an agreement with a sporting goods company - Cobra Puma Golf. Bobby Block is a spokesperson for CASIS. He says a lot of advanced materials are already used in golf balls and clubs.

BOBBY BLOCK: Most of them are made from materials that actually come from the aerospace industry. And so Cobra was thinking that rather than being a passive recipient in using these materials, that they wanted to take an active role and get closer to research to kind of, you know, push the materials and see, you know, how space could develop them further.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the golf deal shows that CASIS can interest companies that haven't traditionally pursued research off our planet.

Alan Stern is a planetary scientist and former NASA official who recently became a scientific adviser for CASIS. He says people need to give this new enterprise a fair chance.

ALAN STERN: CASIS has to succeed, because for it not to succeed would be a huge setback for the international space station program.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says if NASA pulled the plug on CASIS that would waste precious time. Time that would be better spent bringing research to the international space station.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.