Lost in Space

Making NASA relevant again.

Rollins President Lewis M. Duncan (Photo by Scott Cook) Rollins President Lewis M. Duncan (Photo by Scott Cook)

Lewis Duncan remembers being a six-year-old in Appalachia, when his parents took him outside to watch the light of Sputnik—the world’s first artificial satellite, launched by the Russians in 1957—streak overhead.

“It was clear that space was the new frontier,” says Duncan, a renowned space physicist who conducted research at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center in Puerto Rico, worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and served as dean of engineering at Dartmouth College prior to becoming the president of Rollins College in 2004.

And it was. In a decade, man would set foot on the moon. Star Trek and other ’60s TV shows would exalt the nature of human curiosity, that intrinsic desire to go where no one has before. But that fire—kindled by both seemingly endless possibilities and, not insignificantly, the patriotic fervor of the space race—has dwindled.

Today, NASA, like other government agencies, is under the budgetary knife. Given the financial constraints, Congress ordered the spaceflight agency to broaden its priorities for the recently completed International Space Station (ISS): The focus should be not only on esoteric pursuits, such as scientific discoveries that seem far divorced from the realities of life on Earth, but also on applied research, such as work in the zero-gravity platform of space that could lead to private-sector technological breakthroughs.

The increased emphasis is intended to better demonstrate the value of space science for the American taxpayer. So in 2011, NASA competitively selected the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage the U.S. national laboratory of the ISS. A year later, Duncan—who has an extensive background in space sciences and wrote a report for U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s office on the future of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center—was appointed to CASIS’s board of directors.

“NASA had done little in terms of demonstrating direct return on investment to citizens of the world,” Duncan says. CASIS’s goal is to change that. “We cannot sustain NASA solely on the idea that it is our human destiny to explore.”

CASIS essentially now oversees much of the U.S. discovery research and technology development agenda on the ISS. As part of the new order, approximately half of the space station’s American resources (payloads, laboratory resources, and astronaut time) will be dedicated to developing applications that benefit Americans directly.

“A number of us believe in building a bridge between the frontiers of science and the applications for human benefit,” Duncan says. “It’s not a terribly popular place to be.” For 75 years, he points out, U.S. research support has worked within a hierarchal model in which “the brightest people are attracted to basic science but never really have to ask how it can be used.” This, in turn, has led some scientists to feel entitled to funding and public support without having to demonstrate that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. In this new era of austerity and accountability, that’s no longer viable, Duncan says. Space science must evolve and embrace the concurrent development of more pragmatic applications.

“Space is this amazing new territory in which businesses can be developed and deployed,” he says. “It’s coming. We just don’t know exactly where the scientific breakthroughs and transformative applications are going to be.” For example, in its earliest stages of development, we never envisioned the many applications now based on GPS, yet the broad business of geospatial informatics is today larger than the airline industry.

CASIS works, in essence, like this: Imagine you own a company that is developing a new technology and you want to use the U.S. national laboratory on the ISS to do prototype testing. You apply to CASIS, which evaluates projects competing for the space station’s time and resources. If your project is selected, CASIS will help you get your materials into space, provide lab bench resources including power and data bandwidth, and, if needed, even secure an astronaut’s time to work on the testing—all essentially without cost. While CASIS has about $3 million in seed money to help fund promising projects, it is not, by and large, a funding agency—indeed, its annual budget is only about $15 million; instead, it acts as a facilitator, selecting the most worthy projects and helping guide them to completion through access to the ISS.

“The real appeal of CASIS is if you have a bright idea and it is approved through a competitive review process, what we can offer you is a lab in space, a data stream, and an astronaut for free,” Duncan says. “It is a public utility provided by the federal government to advance commercial development that enhances the public welfare. There’s never before been that opportunity in space.”

Right now, CASIS has 67 projects—government, academic, and private enterprise—underway, and another 28 pending. But it is still very much a work in progress. The board of directors is currently completing its strategic plan, which must be reviewed by NASA and Congress, and reviewing candidates for its executive director position. Eventually, the board will add to its numbers—there are currently only seven directors, Duncan included.

In part because the board is so small, Duncan’s position is very hands-on and intensive. There’s a weekly 90-minute evening teleconference, and a quarterly board meeting. He’s also chairing the search committee responsible for evaluating executive director candidates. “It’s real work, not just something to put on your résumé,” he says.

He’s taken to this role with enthusiasm because it’s not just about developing new gadgets, but the future of spaceflight itself. In fact, he says, NASA’s director of the human spaceflight program told the CASIS board that “the future of U.S. manned spaceflight depends on CASIS.” 

In other words, if NASA, through CASIS, can show how valuable space science is for improved life here on Earth, Congress may be more likely to fund new missions to the moon, or Mars, or an asteroid, or beyond.