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The pressure is on NASA and its non-profit partner, CASIS, to demonstrate the research utility of the ISS in order to make a case for extending its like beyond 2020. (credit: NASA)

Stimulating greater use of the ISS


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This week, researchers and others interested in the scientific utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) are meeting in Denver for the second ISS Research and Development Conference, organized by the American Astronautical Society. The three-day event is designed to discuss the current and potential research applications of the station, a critical topic as NASA and its international partners weigh the long-term future of the station, including whether to extend its life beyond 2020.

“We continue to believe that CASIS’s success is critical to maximizing the research capabilities of the ISS,” the NASA OIG report concluded.

The subject of NASA’s utilization of the ISS for research is also the subject of a recent audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG). The July 8 report concluded that NASA has “made progress towards maximizing the research capabilities of the ISS, but opportunities exist for greater utilization to more fully realize the Station’s research potential and maximize the value of the United States’ investment in building and maintaining the structure.”

One particular area examined in the OIG report is NASA’s relationship with the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space (CASIS), the non-profit organization that NASA selected in 2011 to manage non-NASA ISS research activities. CASIS has come under criticism in some quarters for moving too slowly to promote research on the station. Its performance metrics, the OIG report found, were focused too much on organizational milestones than on ISS research activities. The report recommended that NASA “develop precise annual performance metrics that measure CASIS’s success at fostering private research on the ISS,” a recommendation NASA accepted.

While NASA accepted the recommendation, it also argued that CASIS was not the only means by which NASA fosters research on the station. “In addition to CASIS, NASA is maximizing utilization by increasing subscribers from its own broad portfolio of research and technology development on board the ISS,” wrote NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier in his response to the OIG report.

The OIG responded that its report “focused on increasing utilization of the National Lab by entities other than NASA, and CASIS is the primary mechanism through which NASA will pursue this goal. Accordingly, we continue to believe that CASIS’s success is critical to maximizing the research capabilities of the ISS.”

That is a challenge regardless of any of CASIS’s initial organizational problems for several reasons identified in the report. There has been little interest from private entities to use the ISS for research unless “there was a substantial infusion of government funds,” the report states. ISS research has also focused on basic instead of applied research; the latter is far more likely to attract private interest and funding than the former. Ground-based research can also be more effective and less expensive that ISS research in many cases where the space environment, like exposure to microgravity, is not required.

At least one company, though, is seeking to overcome those obstacles to ISS research. Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc. (ZGSI) believes it can make money from performing applied research that can only be done in space: exposing stem cells to microgravity to promote gene expression that can result in new varieties of plants with commercial applications.

“Our business model for Zero Gravity Solutions is that we’re going to produce new varieties of patentable stem cells and plants in space that you cannot do on the ground,” said Richard Godwin, president and CEO of ZGSI, in a presentation about the company at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in San Diego in May.

“Within the next one, maybe two, flights to the space station, we think we’ll be able to stress this plant to be able to grow in West Texas,” Godwin said of ZGSI’s jatropha research. “What’s that worth? It’s worth billions of dollars.”

Godwin, a longtime space advocate, stumbled across this application while working as a consultant for SpaceX, identifying potential users for its DragonLab spacecraft. He was introduced to a scientist named John Wayne Kennedy—“you can’t forget a name like that,” he quipped—who had come up with the idea of exposing stem cells to microgravity to promote gene expression. Those discussions led to the formation of ZGSI, with Godwin as president and CEO and Kennedy as chief science officer.

What ZGSI is promoting is what they call “directed gene expression” of stem cells. “By removing gravity from the equation, plant cells in a weightless environment have an excess of energy causing the plant to activate its survival mechanisms. These include uninhibited and excessive gene expression,” the company states in its marketing materials. “With all normally dormant genes within the cell now expressing, the plant is able to adapt quickly to a changing environment or disease-causing organism, stresses that we introduce artificially while the plant is in microgravity. This means that we can produce new varieties of plants, with commercially beneficial attributes an order of magnitude faster than traditional methods.”

ZGSI is already experimenting with one plant, called jatropha curcas, that is of interest because of its biofuel applications. “You squeeze its berries and out comes jet fuel,” Godwin said, producing up to five to six tons of fuel per hectare of plants. The plant can grow in wet and dry conditions, but can’t tolerate cold weather, and hence is limited to the tropics.

ZGSI is seeking to modify this plant to tolerate cooler weather, with cells from the plant having already flown on several Space Shuttle flights. “Within the next one, maybe two, flights to the space station, we think we’ll be able to stress this plant to be able to grow in West Texas,” Godwin said. “What’s that worth? It’s worth billions of dollars.”

Godwin said the company is also looking at flying cells from bananas to produce varieties that are resistant to a fungus currently threatening the dominant Cavendish version, and rice that can grow in brackish water. Like the jatropha cells, both have positive societal benefits but also the potential for lucrative payoffs if successful, which Godwin said is key to attracting investor interest. “People who invest money don’t want to save the world,” he said. “They look for a return on investment.”

ZGSI hasn’t disclosed how much money it has raised, or revenue it has generated, although Godwin said an unnamed company already paid for five flights of the jatropha cells. ZGSI is, in fact, a public company, traded on the over-the-counter market; it was traded previously under several names, dating back to 1983, when it was involved in mining and biomedical technologies.

The research ZGSI is trying to commercialize predates the formation of CASIS; Godwin said the company has a Space Act Agreement with NASA but is now working directly with CASIS. “NASA has been phenomenally helpful. They’ve been bending over backwards to help us,” he said. “CASIS has been very useful,” he added, noting that he had long supported the idea of having a non-governmental organization running the station.

“There’s a sea change that’s happened in the last three years” regarding utilization of the ISS, he said. The development of commercial resupply systems by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, as well as the creation of CASIS to manage ISS research, make it much easier for companies to fly experiments on the station. “That is why now” there’s increased interest in using ISS, he said, “and not before.”

Godwin claims that is ZGSI’s research is successful, “we can justify the whole cost of the station.” That’s a bold claim from a company still in its earliest stages, particularly when the “whole cost” of the ISS exceeds $100 billion. However, the station’s long-term future, including any justification for operating it beyond the end of the decade, may rely on the ability of companies like ZGSI and others to turn space station experiments into commercial successes.


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