Science & Technology

New space station ventures could boost manufacturing, medicine — and marketing

RENTON, Wash. — NASA’s plan to expand commercial ventures on the International Space Station is attracting lots of interest — and not just from would-be space tourists, according to the agency official who’s keeping track of the proposals.

One of the ideas that’s most intriguing to Doug Comstock, a NASA deputy chief financial officer who serves as the liaison for commercial activities in low Earth orbit, has to do with growing artificial retinas in zero gravity.

“This process just doesn’t work in a gravity field,” Comstock told GeekWire here today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference.

Connecticut-based LambdaVision recently tested the protein-based technique on the space station, with an eye toward proceeding with clinical trials of the retinal implants. The startup expects the process to produce higher-quality retinal implants for patients suffering from age-based macular degeneration.

Other ventures focus on making high-quality optical fiber: At least two California companies, Made In Space and FOMS, are experimenting with the production of fluoride-based ZBLAN fiber on the space station. ZBLAN can transmit clearer signals than run-of-the-mill silica-based fiber, but it has to be manufactured under zero-G conditions to head off imperfections.

Comstock said those are just two examples showing how activities on the space station are “moving beyond research and development to manufacturing.” They’re the kinds of activities that NASA aims to support through a commercialization initiative unveiled last month.

Since that unveiling, NASA has been fleshing out the details for public-private partnerships designed to facilitate the transition from direct government funding of space station operations. By the mid-2020s, NASA wants to be just one of the customers buying access to a commercially managed U.S. segment of the International Space Station, as well as other destinations in low Earth orbit.

“Right now, we’re spending about $3.5 billion a year for station and the transportation to get there. We anticipate that by transitioning to destinations, it’s going to cost us less to conduct the science and R&D and technology demonstrations that we need in the future,” Comstock said.

“We don’t know how much less that’s going to be, but we anticipate that it’ll be less than the $3.5 billion that we’re spending now,” he said. “If it’s a billion dollars less, $2 billion less, then in the time frame we’re talking about, that’s more funds that NASA can apply toward the Mars push. So that’s going to be important going forward for deep-space exploration aspirations.”

NASA already has laid out a price schedule for reimbursable expenses, including per-kilogram cargo rates that range from $3,000 to $18,000 depending on how the cargo has to be handled. Those rates will be adjusted every six months to respond to demand, Comstock said.

There’ll also be an opportunity to add a dedicated commercial module onto one of the space station’s ports, with proposals due next month.

Comstock said NASA will spend about $200 million to spruce up the space station for expanded commercial activities. Adjustments will have to be made to space station utilities, including power, communications and thermal control.

“It’s not quite as simple as just docking a new module,” Comstock explained. “You’ve got to do a bit of work to prepare for it and accommodate it.”

Perhaps the best-known aspect of NASA’s commercialization initiative relates to hosting private-sector astronauts. NASA estimates that it’ll cost such astronauts about $35,000 a night to stay on the station, on top of a transport cost that’s likely to be in excess of $50 million.

NASA’s rules allow for up to two private-astronaut missions per year, with each mission lasting up to 30 days. But that option won’t kick in until NASA certifies the space taxis being developed by SpaceX and Boeing for regular service. That won’t happen until next year.

“If Boeing and/or SpaceX — and a paying customer for an additional private-astronaut mission — are ready to go, the station’s ready to accommodate them in October 2020,” Comstock said.

Paying customers have been flying to the International Space Station since 2001, and there’s a long-running debate over whether they should be referred to as astronauts, spaceflight participants or space tourists. Comstock said he expected the coming wave of customers to bring about a dramatic change the way people think about space travel.

“If you find an old dictionary, say, from the ’30s or ’40s, and you look up the definition of ‘aeronaut,’ it’s somebody who flies on a powered vehicle through the air. So, in the early days of aviation, people who flew on airplanes were called aeronauts,” he said. “Today, they’re called passengers.”

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