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E N G I N E E R I N G   &   T E C H N O L O G Y

Space Station Research

The International Space Station is one of the largest and most complex technological challenges ever attempted. The task of designing, building, and assembling this floating research laboratory is dominating the attention of NASA and its international partners — the European Space Agency and the space programs in Russia and Japan. While the station is not scheduled to be completed until 2004, NASA has begun to consider how to manage the U.S. research portfolio. The diversity of the research activities — including experiments in fundamental physics and biology, biomedical research, materials science, and space technology — will require a broad range of participants in addition to those who will operate the space station itself.

NASA asked the National Research Council to assess alternative approaches to managing the station’s research efforts. A task group of the Research Council recommended in a new report that NASA establish a private organization to manage all U.S.-sponsored research on the station. The proposed organization would focus on supporting the research agenda of the space station, including planning and scheduling experiments, while NASA would continue to manage the station’s construction, basic operations, and maintenance.

In recommending the "outsourcing" of space station research, the task group cited areas where a private organization could be more effective than the government agency. Chief among these is the ability of an independent organization to represent the broad interests of the science and engineering research community and to foster new directions for research in additional scientific fields.

NASA should act quickly to create the new organization by 2001, the report urges, so that it is in place and actively involved in coordinating research plans well before the station is complete. In the meantime, the agency should continue to manage the process of soliciting research proposals, conducting peer reviews, and selecting projects to include on the station.

In addition, NASA should ensure that the proposed organization has clear authority and adequate funding to fulfill its responsibilities for managing high-quality research. The management structure of the new entity should include an independent board of directors and a scientific director with extensive experience in managing a complex range of research activities, the report says. This senior management team would be guided by an advisory process broadly representative of the research community.

Efforts to encourage commercial research interests also should be part of the new organization’s mission. To facilitate these activities, the organization must establish clear policies and procedures for protecting proprietary information. The entity also could serve as an intermediary between NASA and other private sources to fund commercial research. — Bob Ludwig

Institutional Arrangements for Space Station Research. Task Group to Review Alternative Institutional Arrangements for Space Station Research, Space Studies Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems (1999, 82 pp.; available free from the Space Studies Board, tel. 202-334-3477).

The task group was chaired by Cornelius J. Pings of Pasadena, Calif., president emeritus of the Association of American Universities. The study was funded by NASA.


Revolutionary Materials

The revolution in materials science over the past six decades is playing out in ingenious ways: from the proliferation of computers and their ever-faster microprocessors to jet aircraft that stealthily evade radar detection. Advances in materials science are accelerating at such a pace that they are having a significant and widespread impact on both economic growth and national defense.

Because the U.S. military undoubtedly will continue to depend on the most advanced weapons available to conduct its missions, identifying the most promising materials — and the techniques for processing them — is critical for maintaining world leadership. Some emerging needs are in areas such as force mobility, information-driven warfare, unmanned weapons systems, and combating nuclear, chemical, and biological threats. Innovative materials are crucial to improving performance and reliability in these areas, as well as any other advanced weapons or defense systems.

A new study by the Research Council will identify critical materials and priorities in materials processing research and development that will be needed to address 21st-century defense needs. A committee will investigate both intermediate and long-term requirements with an emphasis on revolutionary materials concepts. A final report is expected in winter 2002. — B.L. (See listing under New Projects.)


Idaho’s Rad Waste

For more than 40 years, a processing plant in southern Idaho extracted uranium from spent nuclear fuel that was used for defense purposes. Now thousands of cubic meters of solid and liquid radioactive waste have accumulated and are being stored at the site, known as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is examining options for safe and permanent disposal of the waste. In the meantime, a recent court agreement has specified that the solid waste — classified as high level because it resulted from processing spent fuel — should be converted to forms suitable for out-of-state disposal by 2035.

A new report by a Research Council committee says that the high-level waste should stay in storage in Idaho until uncertainties surrounding treatment options and ultimate disposal sites are resolved.

The committee could identify no significant hazard to public health or the environment in keeping the high-level waste where it is, in steel bins encased in concrete vaults designed to be secure for at least 500 years. Moreover, as time passes, its radioactivity will continue to diminish.

DOE has been studying methods for treating the high-level waste, such as converting it into solid glass, cement, or ceramic forms for disposal. After this happens and it is rendered safe for transporting, it would be permanently disposed of at specially designed underground facilities. Currently the solid waste exists in a granular ceramic form known as calcine.

The new storage site should be identified in advance to ensure that the waste is treated appropriately before being shipped away, the committee said. The waste should be disposed of in a geological repository, such as that being proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But the committee noted that there are still many regulatory and technical uncertainties surrounding disposal at Yucca Mountain, such as whether the repository will have the capacity to store the large amounts of waste coming from INEEL.

As for INEEL’s low-level liquid waste — byproducts of various cleanup operations — actions should be taken immediately to convert it into a solid form suitable for out-of-state disposal, the committee said. The waste currently is kept in tanks that do not meet regulatory standards for long-term storage. Converting it now would reduce the likelihood that the waste could leak. However, the committee explicitly urged DOE not to convert the liquid waste into calcine and add it to the high-level waste; this would be counterproductive because the ultimate disposal site and its requirements are still not known. — Molly Galvin

Alternative High-Level Waste Treatments at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Committee on Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory High-Level Waste Alternative Treatments, Board on Radioactive Waste Management, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (1999, 200 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06628-X; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $41.50 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Robert Forney of Unionville, Pa., retired executive vice president of DuPont, chaired the committee. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.


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