ISS Crew Research Time

It’s even worse than we’ve been told previously:

Suffredini pointed out that ISS operations require 15-17 flights per year and “then sprinkle in EVAs, it’s hard to find time to do research.” EVA refers to extravehicular activity, or spacewalks. NASA has a goal of performing 35 hours of research per week, but the current average is 26.13 hours. He is trying to find ways to “buy back crew time” and looking forward to the era of commercial crew when the typical ISS crew complement will be seven instead of six.

This means that rather than doubling productivity, adding a crew member would increase it by a factor of two and a half. And adding two would increase it by a factor of four (assuming forty-hour weeks — not sure why NASA only has a target of thirty five, or why it’s not even higher, given that they don’t have a hell of a lot else to do up there).

As a way of plugging my upcoming book:

To get back to the bizarre (at least that’s how it would appear to a Martian) behavior with respect to ISS, what is it worth? Of what value is it to have people aboard? We have spent about a hundred billion dollars on it over almost three decades. We are continuing to spend two or three billion a year on it, depending on how one keeps the books. For that, if the purpose is research, we are getting about one person-year of such (simply maintaining the facility takes a sufficient amount of available crew time that on average, only one person is doing actual research at any given time). That would imply that we think that a person-year of orbital research is worth two or three gigabucks.

What is the constraint on crew size? For now, not volume, and not the life support system – I don’t know how many ultimately it could handle, but we know that there is not currently a larger crew because of NASA’s lifeboat requirement, and there has to be a Soyuz (which can return three) for each three people on the station. If what they were doing was really important, they’d do what they do at Scott-Amundsen, and live without. After all, as suggested earlier, just adding two researchers would immediately triple the productivity of the facility. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be continuing to improve the safety, and develop a larger life boat eventually (the Dragon is probably very close to being able to serve as one now, since it doesn’t need a launch abort system for that role), but their unwillingness to risk crew now is indicative of how unimportant whatever science being done on the station really is.

Actually, I should update the book to reflect the new numbers.

Even with the concerns about Dragon issues, I’d bet that there are plenty of people who’d be happy to trust it as a lifeboat right now, though they really should get the new docking adapter up there ASAP. That is really on the critical path to expanding capability. Of course, if they were really serious, they’d do without a lifeboat or ambulance, as Scott-Amundsen does in the winter, and just add crew. I guess Antarctic research is more important than orbital research.

22 thoughts on “ISS Crew Research Time”

  1. Scott-Amundsen is not a media darling so failure is an option.

    And Scott-Amundsen retains the safety culture from the era of its technology. Like trains not having seat belts and metal detectors.

      1. As a side note I think the various South Pole stations have contributed more to learning how to build and crew a lunar or Mars base than the ISS has.

        I don’t think anyone is going to be spending a year or more flying to Mars in a microgravity spacecraft. What ever design is used for an martian transit vehicle will have at least Mars level gravity from spinning.

  2. If one assumes only a billion a year for the cost of station keeping, which is a lowball estimate I am sure; the research averages to 38 million dollars per man hour. Is there any research in the world which costs exceed 38 million dollars a man hour? I doubt it. Even if you increased productivity an order of magnitude to 3.8 million dollars per hour, would there not be a better way to get the same work done.

  3. Small error. The cost per man hour for a billion a year in station keeping is on 736 thousand per man hour. I stand corrected. Still, same argument applies.

  4. Don’t they just spend most of their time doing research on how low gravity is making their bodies deteriorate because nobody spent the money to make a space station that spins to give them partial or even full G?

    1. There are more things being done. I read recently they were doing experiments on remote control of robots on the surface of the Earth from the ISS as a preparation for either a Lunar or Mars mission where astronauts would control robots from orbit.
      I agree with Rand they should be trying harder to increase the time available for research. Considering all the money spent on ISS the more research we get out of it the better. They should add the docking adapter so those complicated berthing maneuvers with the robotic arm are no longer required, just like they aren’t required on the Russian segment. With Dragon and hopefully soon Cygnus will come the capability for a large lifeboat and increased resupply. No reason not to increase crew size and it should be done ASAP.

      1. That’s not a very compelling argument–a time delay that switched between half a second and a full second round trip with some noise thrown in would seem like it could do 90% of what that test did. Frankly, that example looks more like someone trying to protect their phony-baloney jobs.

  5. Even with the concerns about Dragon issues, I’d bet that there are plenty of people who’d be happy to trust it as a lifeboat right now

    Pilots routinely trust their lives to ejection seats, knowing the reliability is less than 100% and even a “successful” ejection may result in career-ending injuries.

    Also, no space station “lifeboat” has ever been used as anything more than an emergency shelter. What is the likelihood of an emergency that requires an escape vehicle, rather than merely a safe room?

    1. Sadly, they definitely do assume a 40 hour work week, as they are government employees. They’ll even get Thanksgiving and Christmas off.

  6. If we can’t figure out how to live and work in LEO, then we should forget leaving LEO. While I do agree that the ISS may not be operated in the most efficient manner, the ability to add people means that we can “upgrade” the ISS fairly inexpensively when the Commercial Crew vehicles come online, so I’m hoping that provides enough incentive to keep political & scientific support behind it.

  7. I feel the need to point out that the ISS itself is one, big (gargantuan, in fact) research project. It is our tool for learning how a big, long-duration inhabited space vehicle can be made to work. Before sending a crew off to Mars, we have a lot to learn about what will be involved in just keeping them alive. I know the guy who defined the maintenance requirements for ISS before the design was complete. No one believe him, but had it nailed pretty accurately. It is a work in progress still…

    1. So we’ve learned that prolonged weightlessness is bad; we’ve attempted to come up with ways to deal with it but as far as I know (and I haven’t been following all that closely) none of them seem to work too well. So it seems kind of a waste to do more investigation of long-term microgravity; instead we should start playing with various centrifugal approaches. This likely would need a number of stations, to test what radius and what acceleration would work for how long. No one-size fits all approach, instead a bunch of disposables, maybe with tethers so the radius can be increased fairly easily.

    1. So true.

      When I was a little one, I didn’t miss an episode of Star Trek. But even back then, I knew there was something hokey about how the USS Enterprise (how I love that name) had 31 flavors of crew on board.

      And now on the ISS, they make a point to have one of every flavor on board. They even have astronauts who are themselves a mix — Sunita Williams — who just happened to be the most qualified. And Akihiko Hoshide. Evgeny Tarelkin. Uh huh. Just like Sulu and Chekov. Sure.

      If you use rigorous training and military-style discipline, you can get people who are so fundamentally different to work together – temporarily. But don’t pretend that’s a model for how we can do things at home.

      We know that can’t work. If it makes you uncomfortable to stare this fact in the face, I sympathize. Doing so makes me uncomfortable, too. We have all been carefully trained to avert our eyes from the truth, to cast about frantically for explanations rather than believe what we see every day.

      But I refuse to take refuge in the comfort of platitudes. I insist on facing the truth, no matter how ugly, unpleasant, or “racist’” the truth may be.

      And I can do that — today. Today, stating the truth is merely offensive. Today, I’m a mere “racist”.

      Soon, however, it will become illegal.

      I look forward to becoming a thought criminal.

  8. There are many issues with the way the on board crew is utilized. One of the problem is that the crew has scheduled exercise time as part of their 35 hour work week, as much as 10 hours a week. While the crew do have to deal with the effects of microgravity what do they do for the other 130 hours a week that they are on the station. How much time can you spend looking out the window? You are on a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something why would you not be begging to do some science? Some crew (Don Pettit) do choose to do “bonus” science in their “spare” time, but most don’t.

    1. From the way it sounds, even adding a person solely for research means only about 25 hours per week (unless the person ends up working more per week) due to the exercise requirement and the relatively low base work week.

  9. Just as the “lower launch costs” argument was used to sell the Shuttle, the “science” argument was used to sell the ISS.

    In reality the ISS was only built to justify the Shuttle’s existence after Challenger and to be a symbol of the end of the Cold War – Americans and Russians no longer in competition in space. Now its only reason for existence appears to be bankroll New Space firms.

    You have to wonder if the $2-3 billion it costs couldn’t be put to better use in opening the frontier. Or just be used to reduce the debt.

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