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Fledgling NASA Nonprofit Starts To Lift Off

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.

I'd give them a D-plus overall.

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.

CASIS has to succeed. Because for it not to succeed would be a huge setback for the international space station program.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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