Conflict of Interest Concerns: NASA, CASIS, and the International Space Station

Increased scrutiny has been focused on The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the non-profit organization chosen by NASA to manage its research assets aboard the International Space Station. A Congressional mandate directed NASA to create the ISS National Laboratory and seek an outside entity to manage the use of that resource for science, technology, and commercial research.

The Executive Director of CASIS recently resigned, overtly citing a number of problems with NASA and one of its bidding partners, ProOrbis. Investigations by the NASA Office of Inspector General are underway and there is talk of a Congressional request for an audit of CASIS by the Government Accountability Office.

At the center of many concerns is the relationship between NASA, ProOrbis, CASIS, Space Florida, and various congressional staffers as the original concept of the ISS National Laboratory was developed, bidders solicited, and a contracted awarded.

Jeanne DiFrancesco from ProOrbis developed a significant portion of the procurement package for NASA's ISS National Laboratory non-profit partner: the National Laboratory Reference Model. Oddly, DiFrancesco and ProOrbis ended up as a major part of the winning team's bid (CASIS). How is it that a contractor that NASA specifically uses to write part of a solicitation is then allowed to bid for - and win - the contract awarded in response to the very same procurement they helped craft?

In Dr. Becker's resignation letter, and ProOrbis' response, this issue of potential conflict of interest was raised. Indeed, the core thrust of Becker's departure, in part, seems to be her frustration in being unable to retain the non-profit status (and Intent) of CASIS against external pressures to engage in overt commercial activities via ProOrbis.

Curiously, NASA's Mark Uhran and Jeanne DiFrancesco (Principal of ProOrbis, LLC and the President and CEO of ProOrbis Ventures, LLC.) are on the advisory board of U.S Rare Earths. U.S Rare Earths is a for-profit mining company.

How is it that one of the main government officials behind the CASIS procurement (still a NASA civil servant a manging various ISS activities) and a senior representative of the company that was part of the team that won the CASIS contract are allowed to participate in a external business activity?

Resignation Letter from CASIS Executive Director Jeanne L. Becker

"Unrealistic expectations have been levied collectively by Congressional staffers, by NASA (Mr. Uhran) and by ProOrbis. These pressures have placed unnecessary stress and hardship on CASIS, not only organizationally but also on management, forcing a defensive posture with constant focus on mitigation strategies to fend off political threats of the elimination of CASIS. ... Now, for unknown reasons, following selection of that proposal and stand up of the organization, the Space Florida interim board persists in pursuing engagement of ProOrbis on behalf of CASIS, with CASIS management forced to bear the responsibility of mitigating ensuing organizational risks occurring as a result of the interim board's actions. "

ProOrbis Statement re: CASIS Director Resignation

"However, since taking on this role, [Dr. Becker] has not engaged ProOrbis in the stand-up activities of CASIS as was contemplated. Issues of conflict of interest for all the principal parties were satisfactorily addressed in the Cooperative Agreement and provisions were put in place to mitigate any potential conflicts."

Earlier CASIS postings

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