NASA is looking to hand over control of U.S. science experiments on the International Space Station to a nonprofit organization, the space agency announced on Dec. 2.

The space agency issued a call for "an independent, nonprofit research management organization to develop and manage the U.S. portion of the station," according to the Dec. 2 statement.

The International Space Station is a $100 billion orbiting lab built by 15 countries working under five international agencies — NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Construction of the space station began in 1998 and will be completed in 2011.

The U.S. portion of the outpost was designated a National Laboratory in 2005 to open its facilities for use by non-NASA researchers. [Graphic: Inside and Out: The International Space Station]

"NASA recognizes the station is an extraordinary asset for the nation," NASA chief Charles Bolden said. "Scientific research and development and education are critical to our national growth and prosperity as a high-technology society. The station offers exceptional opportunities to contribute to this growth. By taking this action, we are ensuring the station is available for broad, meaningful and sustained use."

The plan to seek a nonprofit organization to manage these research activities was set out in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in October 2010. That bill also extended the lifespan of the space station from a planned 2015 decommissioning to at least 2020.

Over the last decade, more than 400 scientific experiments in fields such as biology, human physiology, physical and materials science, and Earth and space science have been conducted on the space station.

As of Nov. 2, the International Space Station has been continuously occupied by humans for more than 10 years. It is also the longest continually staffed space station in history.

NASA will hold a public forum for interested parties to learn more about the partnership on Dec. 10.

"The organization will stimulate uses of the station as a national laboratory and maximize the U.S. investment in this initiative," NASA officials said in the statement. "The selected organization will capitalize on the unique venue of the orbiting laboratory as a national resource; and develop and manage a diversified research and development portfolio based on U.S. needs for basic and applied research in a variety of fields."

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