In Need of a Microgravity Assist

Helping ISS research break the market’s surly bonds

If NASA wants companies to embrace microgravity research, development and manufacturing, the space agency will need to spend more than it currently does showing promising applications that merit commercial investment, government and industry officials said.

NASA has spent more than $75 billion building, operating and supplying the International Space Station since the project began in 1985. Keeping it going costs another $3 billion to $4 billion a year. Of that sum, the space agency devotes about $300 million annually to microgravity research focused primarily on NASA priorities like keeping astronauts healthy during extended space missions.

In 2011, NASA began giving the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space $15 million a year to support academic and commercial microgravity research and to publicize the United States’ orbiting national laboratory. Much of CASIS’ work involves educating potential customers about the microgravity environment and the national laboratory, a cylinder 8.5 meters long and 4.3 meters in diameter.

“You are never going to walk into the first meeting with a company and walk out with an idea for an experiment,” said Cynthia Bouthot, CASIS business development director. “It takes brainstorming.”

CASIS also teaches companies about constraints of the space station’s laboratory, including the premium on real estate and time astronauts need to devote to experiments. “The easiest payload is the one that has no mass, no power requirements, no volume requirements, and can automate itself and write the paper at the end,” said Michael Roberts, CASIS deputy chief scientist.

In spite of those constraints, commercial interest in microgravity is growing. “We’ve seen increased traction and interest from significant Fortune 500 companies, which has been encouraging to us,” Bouthot said. “We’ve also seen a movement where organizations are paying their own internal development costs for microgravity research.”

Still, some companies have been hesitant to pay for spaceflight hardware and microgravity projects that can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000. In 2015, CASIS gave about $4.1 million in grants to spur promising microgravity research initiatives.

That effort needs to expand before private investment takes over. “The government needs to go a little bit further than it has in sponsoring basic research and early stage technology development,” said Lynn Harper, integrative studies leader for NASA’s Emerging Commercial Space Office. “We need to demonstrate microgravity applications and then let private companies take it from there. When you get a killer app, you’ll see a rapid increase in the number of groups looking at investing in space manufacturing.”

“The easiest payload is the one that has no mass, no power requirements, no volume requirements, and can automate itself and write the paper at the end,”

– Michael Roberts
CASIS deputy chief scientist.