Commercial utilization of the ISS has come a long way. It still has further to go.
Richard Glover is convinced microgravity is the key to producing a type of semiconductor able to withstand higher temperatures, frequencies and voltages than traditional silicon chips. In tests confirmed by Stanford University’s Extreme Environment Microsystems Laboratory, Acme Advanced Materials has shown time in microgravity can transform defective silicon carbide wafers into some of the best wafers money can buy, said Glover, Acme president and chief executive.
The problem is manufacturing products in space remains too expensive for Acme. Companies usually spend anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000 to fly payloads on the International Space Station. Acme won a grant from the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to test its manufacturing process on the space station within the next two years. But for now, the company will produce its first generation of silicon carbide semiconductor material on parabolic aircraft flights. “Our challenge has been the high cost of access to space,” Glover said.
NASA is working hard to bring down the cost of sending commercial experiments to the space station’s national laboratory. Transportation to orbit is free. Companies don’t pay for the work astronauts perform. And CASIS, which runs the station’s national laboratory, works with companies to help design microgravity research programs.
In addition, private companies are playing a growing role in supporting microgravity research and development with orbital and suborbital launch vehicles as well as parabolic airplane flights. “We are approaching the golden age of microgravity,” said Lynn Harper, integrative studies lead for NASA’s Emerging Commercial Space Office.
SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance are building rockets and crew vehicles designed to trim the cost of orbital transportation. Many more companies are developing suborbital rockets and smaller launch vehicles.
NASA also is preparing to send an inflatable space habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace to the space station in February. If tests prove its durability, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module could serve as a future orbiting laboratory. Bigelow proposes launching two modules each offering 330 cubic meters of internal volume and a crew of six Bigelow astronauts to create a private space station to house scientific and commercial research, said Mike Gold, Bigelow’s director of Washington operations and business growth.
Meanwhile, BioServe Space Technologies, NanoRacks and Kentucky Space are helping shepherd newcomers through the process of crafting experiments for spaceflight and winning approval to send them to the space station, which has rigorous guidelines to protect astronauts onboard. Space Tango, a for-profit firm established in 2013 by the nonprofit Kentucky Space, is preparing to send an automated research and development laboratory to the space station that can run more than 21 experiments simultaneously, while developing a larger lab that can support over 100 biomedical experiments. “We are trying to streamline and expedite microgravity research,” said Kris Kimel, Kentucky Space president.
“Unlike The Martian, where they used potatoes, we used lettuce and green vegetables for our first missions. Although some of my Russian friends really want us to use potatoes because there are other uses of potatoes that you can’t get out of lettuce.”
— Mark Sirangelo
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s corporate VP for space systems, speaking Feb. 2 at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference. SNC’s Orbitec subsidiary worked on ISS’s lettuce-growing “VEGGIE” experiment.
In the past, microgravity research often was supported with NASA or the National Institutes of Health grants, which meant government agencies could claim intellectual property rights. Space Tango and its investors are funding most research themselves to retain intellectual property and profit from space-based breakthroughs in biomedical research and pharmacology. “When you take gravity out of the equation, you scramble all biological and physical processes,” Kimel said.
In spite of experimental data showing some of the surprising results of microgravity experiments, many of the medical experts Kimel and his colleagues approach never considered the potential implications or benefits of microgravity research. “It never crossed their minds,” Kimel said. “That alerted us to the fact that this may be a new frontier in medicine.”
Vivo Biosciences is a small biotech company eager to investigate that possibility. The firm specializes in growing three-dimensional human tissues and tumors used by the company and doctors to evaluate which chemotherapies are likely to help specific cancer patients. Vivo Biosciences wants to test whether individual patient tumors grown in microgravity would be significantly larger and their discrete cellular and molecular makeup would be more clearly defined than tumors grown on Earth. If so, that would help doctors match therapies to individual patients, said Raj Singh, Vivo Biosciences president and chief executive.
Microgravity research also could lead to important discoveries in physical and materials science. In the 1960s, researchers identified ZBLAN as a promising material for optical fiber but they could not produce it for a variety of reasons, including the crystals that formed when people tried to turn the heavy metal f luoride glass into strands roughly the diameter of a human hair. If further research shows high-quality ZBLAN fiber can be produced in microgravity, space-based production could be profitable. Researchers think that in microgravity they could turn a glass rod weighing about half a kilogram into eight kilometers of ZBLAN fibers worth as much as $8 million, said Ioana Cozmuta, microgravity lead for the Space Portal of the NASA Ames Research Park.
In spite of all that promise, research, development and manufacturing in microgravity is not likely to become widespread until companies are convinced that the results are worth the additional time and expense of spaceflight.
“People say business will take off once launch costs fall to $1,000 a pound,” Glover said. “But you don’t know what launch price you need until you know what you are making and you know the market. For some things you could make in space, $10,000 per pound would be just fine. For others, you need to get to $100 per pound.”