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Taran March @ Quality Digest


Off Earth, on Budget

Manufacturing in space takes a giant leap this year

Published: Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 13:03

What must it be like to be Elon Musk? Here’s a guy who can successfully launch the world’s most powerful rocket into space, a feat hitherto reserved for nations with decent budgets. Since 2010 his commercial company, SpaceX, has been ferrying satellites to their permanent homes, and delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). And he’s made it cost-effective, as far as such high-stakes ventures go. Is it any wonder that manufacturing is poised to step outside Earth’s atmosphere and reap astronomical profits in zero G?

Musk’s puckish delivery of his Tesla roadster into permanent orbit pales in comparison. As much as I enjoyed the art-installation aspect—including the “Don’t Panic” dashboard nod to TheHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—I’m more taken with how manufacturing in space can be doable at all. It can’t possibly be lean, can it?

SpaceX’s Starman goes where no man has gone before, in a Telsa roadster owned by Elon Musk.

Apparently it can. Aerospace engineers and futurists have been aware of the advantages of space manufacturing for some time. The ultra-clean vacuum out there could enable the manufacture of very pure pharmaceutical products, crystals, and alloys. Zero gravity and the absence of air turbulence lend themselves to the handling of large components and their assembly into giant structures. Space also provides a large sink for heat rejection, and there’s a virtually limitless abundance of energy from the sun.

This year in particular will see a couple proofs of concept that will demonstrate the viability of space industry. Rare-metals mining on the moon and asteroids is one scenario that comes to mind, but that is years out yet, although NASA’s NextSTEP (“Next space technologies for exploration partnerships”), a public-private model that seeks commercial development capabilities to support spaceflight missions, is already looking into habitat systems and a multi-material fabrication laboratory.

Closer to home and present time is an experiment underway on the ISS to produce exotic fiber-optic cable for data transmission. The experiment, conducted by a Southern California company called FOMS Inc. (“Fiber optics manufacturing in space”), will demonstrate the technical and commercial feasibility of in-orbit manufacturing of the product.

How is this possible? It turns out that garden-variety fiber-optic cable costs about $3,000 to $5,000 per kilogram to produce, but ZBLAN fiber, the sort that FOMS has its eye on because it can transmit a much broader spectrum of light useful for creating things like ultraviolet surgical lasers and infrared manufacturing tools, can run upward of a few million dollars per kilo. Moreover, since gravity restricts the length of cable that can be created earthside, you begin to understand the commercial possibilities of producing the stuff in space.

Fiber optic cables made in zero gravity (left) are much clearer than those made in Earth's gravity (right).

Last December, one of SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 workhorses delivered more materials for Made in Space’s (“Build above”) additive manufacturing facility aboard the ISS. The company has been testing various “feedstock” for use in its other project, called the Archinaut Development Program, a NASA-partnered affair that aims to manufacture, assemble, and integrate large space structures, in space. The Archinaut system is integrated into a satellite and includes a space-capable manufacturing unit, assembly robotics, feedstock, and prefabricated components. Working in microgravity, Made in Space has 3D-printed a high-performance polymer that can produce stronger, more heat-resistant materials, a first step in building permanent manufacturing facilities beyond Earth.

Last year Made in Space and the commercial space station builder Axiom Space (“The world’s first commercial space station”) signed an agreement “to be users and providers of one another’s capabilities to manufacture products in space,” a smart move considering the chicken-and-egg necessity of both space-resilient building materials and a place in which to create them. Houston-based Axiom plans to build its privately funded commercial space station to replace the ISS when it’s phased out, to some dismay, possibly as early as 2024.

Allegedly to be built at a fraction of the cost of the ISS—$1.5 billion compared to ISS’s price tag of $100 billion—the new space station will begin life as a module attached to the ISS before becoming a standalone structure that will support a seven-member crew of professional astronauts, researchers, and yes, tourists. Given that NASA must spend $3.5 billion of its annual $19 billion budget to maintain the ISS, the agency is happy to let Axiom take over as space hotelier and use the money it saves to pay for some of its other pet projects. These include another trip to the moon, if flat funding and a shortfall of agency administrators can be overcome.

Axiom Space’s proposed station will be built with as many off-the-shelf components as possible.

However, all this entrepreneurial fever comes with its share of regulatory snags, as Moon Express (“Redefining possible”) recently discovered. Having taken over Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral, and invested $1.85 million in renovations—including a moonscape in the parking lot—the company discovered that its plans to put a robotic lander on the moon this year for a look around had run afoul of a 50-year-old global agreement known as the Outer Space Treaty. Among other stipulations, the treaty says that “the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all states parties to the treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Would “peaceful purposes” include extracting minerals for benign manufacturing back on Earth?

To sort it out, last summer the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill called the American Enterprise Free Space Commerce Act, which would create an Office of Space Commerce to help move some of these commercial projects along. (The Senate is still working on its version.) While that’s brewing in Congress, Moon Express has since negotiated a one-time OK from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the authority to approve rocket payloads. Currently, legal wisdom has it that although all countries own the moon, for-profit companies can own the material they extract from it.

Soil composition of the moon

It’s not just the United States that is interested in out-there manufacturing. In 2017, German organization AZO developed the Space Exploration Masters (“Empowering and fostering new innovation through new ideas for LEO, Moon, Mars, and Earth”) on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). Like the Google Lunar X Prize (“Welcome to the new space race”), the Space Exploration Masters is an international competition to identify best technology transfer business successes, as well as foster business innovation around space exploration activities. Last year entrepreneurs and visionaries were lured by the €10,000 in prize money for proven successes.

Meanwhile, like those shrewd entrepreneurs who sold mining equipment and necessities to gold-rush miners, Seattle-based mission-management provider Spaceflight Industries (“Offering the most rideshare options to space”) is figuring out ways to optimize the use of all the launch vehicles in the commercial market, ranging from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to India’s PSLV rocket and Rocket Lab’s (“Space is now open for business”) low-cost Electron launcher.

“We operate like an Uber or Lyft for small spacecraft,” says Jeff Roberts, Spaceflight Industries’ director of launch programs.

With so much innovation, it’s a good thing there’s enough room in space for it all. For us staid, earthbound bystanders, it’s crazy, it’s inconceivably expensive, but it’s also, somehow, cheering.

“We want a new space race,” urges the ever-optimistic Musk. “Races are exciting.”


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director. A 30-year veteran of publishing, March has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she usually can be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.


Space -The Final Frontier?

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (with apologies to Robert Heilein)

In space, no one can hear you scream!  (without apology to "Alien")