Making it in space
by Jeff Foust
|“Our focus primarily is not necessarily on the six people up there but on the seven billion people down here,” Kimel said. “What we’re really looking at is using microgravity in creative ways to solve the really difficult problems on Earth.”|
But, as interest in commercial facilities grows, a key question remains: who will use them? NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit that runs the portion of the station designated a US national laboratory, have been working to stimulate interest from a wide range of commercial users in recent years, beyond the long-running standbys of space tourism and “sovereign customers,” or national governments.
At last month’s ISS Research and Development Conference in San Diego, some of those prospective customers talked about their interest in using the space station. Kris Kimel, president of Kentucky Space and chairman of a commercial spinoff, Space Tango, talked about that company’s efforts to support research on the ISS.
“Space Tango enables R&D for bioengineering and biomanufacturing in the microgravity environment of space,” he said during a panel discussion at the conference. The company, which has flown several experiments to the station, was on the verge of launching its first permanent lab, TangoLab-1, to the ISS. That hardware was flown to the station on a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission that launched a few days after the conference.
“We allow customers, through the design of this microlaboratory, the ability to do lots of different experiments, from materials to physics to biomedicine,” he said. TangoLab-1 can accommodate 21 different “CubeLabs” simultaneously, which can be switched out as needed.
Space Tango, Kimel said, has a particular interest in biomedicine on the ISS—something he calls “exomedicine”—that he believes can have applications for terrestrial medicine. “Our focus primarily is not necessarily on the six people up there but on the seven billion people down here,” he said. “What we’re really looking at is using microgravity in creative ways to solve the really difficult problems on Earth.”
“The big question that drives us is, what if the next medical breaktheough isn’t on the planet?” he said. “We fundamentally believe, from a lot of the work we’ve done and many other people in this field, that there are some huge breakthroughs to be learned from microgravity.”
Mike Safyan, director of launch and regulatory affairs for commercial remote sensing company Planet (formerly Planet Labs), said the ISS has been instrumental for his company by serving as a launch platform. “The ISS has been a hugely important launch partner,” he said, noting that 9 of the 14 launches involving the company’s satellites have been on missions to the ISS, from which the satellites are later deployed.
“The big advantage there is that there’s so many launches happening every year going to the ISS,” he said. “That’s allowed us to develop and innovate the technology quite quickly.”
|“Saying you’ve tested in space, for a commercial entity that is not related to the space program, is a really appealing thing,” Murphy said. “Space is sexy.”|
Stephanie Murphy, president of Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance, hopes to find interest in using the station as a materials science platform. Her company is commercializing the Materials ISS Experiment (MISSE), versions of which have flown on the station since early in its history. “Investors and entrepreneurs are drawn into here because you can really, actually get your samples into space for just this small delta cost,” she said.
A new version of MISSE is slated to launch to the ISS next year. Alpha Space has already signed up its first commercial customer for that mission, she said, and hopes to attract others based in part on the prestige she believes is associated with space-based testing. “Saying you’ve tested in space, for a commercial entity that is not related to the space program, is a really appealing thing,” she said. “Space is sexy.”
One of the more intriguing concepts for commercial use of the ISS came later in the conference, from Made In Space, the company that has developed and flown two 3-D printers to the ISS. The company now wants to branch out from experimental development using such printers into manufacturing, a long-held dream of space commercialization advocates that, after decades of efforts, has yet to be realized.
“The way we have made money off of space commercially since time immemorial has been sending signals back and forth, sending ones and zeros,” said Andrew Rush, president and CEO of Made In Space. “We at Made In Space believe that manufacturing in space is the real game changer for driving activity into space.”
The company, partnering with ThorLabs, plans to demonstrate this with a payload it will fly to the ISS next year. That payload will make a special kind of fiber optic material, known as ZBLAN. Rush said that research dating back about 20 years suggests that making ZBLAN in space will remove the impurities and scattering when it’s produced on the ground, resulting in far less signal attenuation in the fibers. That, in turn, would make the fibers highly valuable.
The payload will fly to the ISS, where it will produce the fibers for later return to Earth to demonstrate its performance. “We are actually making things on orbit and utilizing them here on Earth,” Rush said. “We hope this is the first of many experiments like this and business models that are ultimately based in low Earth orbit, and one day beyond, but providing value here to people on Earth.”
Made In Space is not the only company interested in using the ISS as a testbed for fiber optics manufacturing. Earlier in the conference, Dmitry Starodubov of FOMS Inc. discussed the potential of doing such manufacturing in orbit, although his company is not as far along as Made In Space. Optical fiber, he noted, costs roughly $4,000 per kilogram, making space-based manufacturing feasible even without dramatic decreases in space access costs.
Making the transition from potential applications to profitable businesses, though, remains uncertain. Right now, a lot of these ventures rely on subsidies and other support provided through CASIS and NASA, which can be significant: “in the neighborhood” of $7.5 million for MISSE, said Alpha Space’s Murphy.
“It’s a great time, if you’re a new company interested in commercialization of low Earth orbit, to get in while NASA is still providing that subsidy,” she said.
Those subsidies won’t exist forever, though, putting pressure on ventures to ramp up revenues to close their business cases when they have to pay the full cost of getting to and from, and using, either the ISS or some future commercial space station. How that plays out may be the biggest challenge facing both commercial stations and their potential customers.
|“The goal is to develop one or more business lines that eventually can survive and thrive on commercial platforms in the future,” said Rush.|
Markets can shift, too. While Planet has been a major user of the ISS as a satellite launch platform for its satellites, the company is also using other launch providers: the same day that Safyan spoke at the conference, Planet announced a launch contract with Rocket Lab, the US-New Zealand company developing the Electron small launch vehicle.
Electron and other vehicles can place Planet’s satellites into Sun-synchronous orbits, the preferred orbit for remote sensing satellites, versus the lower, less inclined orbit of the ISS. Other companies developing operational smallsat systems, for remote sensing, communications, weather, or other applications, may similarly see as a way to quickly test smallsats before moving on to other launch systems.
Made In Space’s Rush, meanwhile, is willing to work within the station’s current constraints to demonstrate the potential of fiber optic manufacturing in space that could grow in scale down the road in a commercial module or station. “It’s our job as a commercial space company to find the models that work with the current operations,” he said. “The goal is to develop one or more business lines that eventually can survive and thrive on commercial platforms in the future.”
The time to attempt that is now, Rush concluded. “We are at what I think is an inflection point for continued development of commercial activity in space.”