Goods beyond Earth: cheaper manufacturing in space
Image credit: NASA
Back in the 1970s, Nasa conducted experiments to see if large-scale manufacturing plants could operate in space, with no success. Today, cheaper launch costs, smaller satellites and reusable rockets have made space more affordable, so manufacturing in space could become an option once again.
“In the zero gravity of space, we could manufacture in 30 days lifesaving medicines it would take 30 years to make on Earth. We can make crystals of exceptional purity to produce supercomputers, creating jobs, technologies and medical breakthroughs beyond anything we ever thought possible.”
It is an exciting proposition. But these ambitious words were not spoken recently. They were part of Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union speech.
At that point, Nasa had already spent over a decade conducting experiments to see if large-scale manufacturing plants could operate in space.
“The idea was that the weightlessness of space could be used to make medicines in quantities and with purities that cannot be achieved with Earth’s gravity,” explains astronaut Charlie Walker, who joined the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in 1977 as a test engineer on the aft propulsion subsystem for space shuttle orbiters. He became the first non-government individual to fly in space.
“Space is perfectly suited for manufacturing operations because it gives us gravitational control,” Walker continues. “Here on Earth, we cannot achieve perfect zero gravity, but in a free, open outer space we have micro-gravity and that can be manipulated for manufacturing processes.”
Space also offers an infinitely available vacuum. “That’s something that we cannot achieve on Earth easily – it is incredibly difficult and expensive to simulate a vacuum for any extended period of time,” he says.
With zero gravity and a vacuum, several manufacturing processes can be carried out with relative ease. “For some manufacturing operations in materials – including biomaterials, and products – including bioproducts, space can remove some of the gravity-induced defects in ways that are essential to increasing profitability, safety or useability,” says Lynn Harper, strategic integration adviser for in-space production applications for the International Space Station Program, based at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Palo Alto, California.
For example, alloys can be more easily created. “It is very difficult to achieve a uniform mixture of metals here on Earth because gravity-driven sedimentation can occur – that can cause fracture points, and reduce performance and efficacy of the material,” says Walker. “But when alloying is done in the absence of gravity, there’s more uniformity because there’s no convection, sedimentation or hydrostatic pressure.”
Leo Volfson, president of Torrey Pines Logic – an engineering company working with California-based Fiber Optic Manufacturing in Space (FOMS) – explains this more simply: “If you make a cup of loose tea, and swirl the leaves around with a spoon, the tea leaf is all over the cup,” he says. “But when you remove the spoon, the leaves settle at the bottom. It’s gravity that does that. When you have low gravity, you can ensure a degree of uniformity when components are mixed – and they will remain that way.”
Deposition is another process perfectly suited to space. “With deposition, we’re not mixing materials, but depositing materials on the surface of another material,” Walker says. “This process is used in photoelectric cells, for example, as well as in microelectronic chips that we use pervasively today. But to be done well, it needs to be done in a vacuum.”
Meanwhile, crystal growth in space consistently produces larger crystals that are more uniform and exhibit better structures than on Earth. “Crystals are important in many high-tech activities, including medicine,” says Harper. “New trends in protein-based therapeutics could benefit from crystallising their key compounds in microgravity to improve uniformity and improve dosing calculations, quality control and improved results during clinical trials.”
Then there’s electrophoresis, an electrokinetic method that separates charged particles in an aqueous solution under the influence of an electric field.
“As far as it’s known, every type of material in the natural world has an inherent small electrical charge,” Walker explains. “Electrophoresis takes advantage of that by putting a mixture of substances in a buffer solution and then subjecting this to an electrical field. The field causes the differently charged substances to separate.”
However, that process is affected by gravity. “Gravity can make it very hard, and sometimes impossible, to eliminate the mass differentiation on Earth,” Walker says. “However, in space, without gravitational attraction of any significance, we can achieve a uniform separation of materials. That’s why we devised a continuous flow electrophoresis (CFES) device.”
The CFES offered an incomparable method for separating extremely large quantities of highly purified materials. “The intent was to continually manufacture extensive pure medical-research grade or pharmaceutical-grade biological materials – that could be cells and cellular components suspended in liquid or solutions of proteins, hormones and enzymes – in a much purer form than could be achieved here on Earth,” Walker says. “We could then bring those back to Earth where they would be processed for use in medical research without question about side effects – because impurities were not present coming out of the purification process – and with increased efficacy.”
Walker accompanied the McDonnell Douglas CFES equipment on three Space Shuttle missions, accumulating 20 days’ experience in space and travelling 8.2 million miles. While all objectives were met during four earlier test flights and his three missions, the project simply wasn’t economically viable at the time.
“Back then, promised lower launch costs instead increased, and the Challenger Space Shuttle accident greatly reduced flight rates and commercial access to orbit,” says Walker. “That meant the level of physical and financial risk of getting a vehicle into space and returning to Earth was too high. At the same time, forced delays in our development were allowing genetic engineering advances the real prospect of creating significant competition. It became difficult to get the commitments we needed to make the project commercially feasible.”
But things have changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Thanks to the International Space Station (ISS), and the work of private companies such as Space X, Axiom Space and other innovators, companies that once had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a satellite into orbit can now do so for a fraction of the price.
“We’ve seen, through 135 Space Shuttle flights, thousands of experiments that prove what’s possible,” says Walker. “Space travel is more reliable and less expensive than ever.”
Harper agrees: “During the 30 years of the Space Shuttle, we only spent about three and a half years in space. But now we have the ISS open 24/7/365, companies can use the facility, iterate, learn and perfect outcomes.”
A permanent space station is one enabling factor, but there are other considerations that make this a truly watershed moment for manufacturing in space. “We are seeing increasing demand for high-tech products that push materials and processes to the point where defects at the atomic and molecular level really matter,” says Harper. “This is where microgravity can help, and it coincides with the exceptional performances and outcomes that 21st-century technologies seek to achieve. The ISS enables the iteration and practice in microgravity that companies need to perfect the state of the art for in-space manufacturing.”
There’s no shortage of companies who are laser-focused on this mission.
“In protein-based pharmaceuticals, there have been two successful outcomes, both led by Paul Reichert, initially of Schlering-Plough and currently with Merck,” says Harper. “And, for speciality glass fibre and preform development, four companies have successfully miniaturised 30ft [9m] drop tower manufacturing facilities into 30in [75cm] manufacturing units for space.”
Indeed, one company, Mercury Systems, hit its first performance goal in space. “Another company, Apsidal, used its 30in unit to produce 285m of its [fibre] product on Earth,” Harper says. “These companies are currently fine-tuning their hardware on the ISS and have begun initial runs.”
FOMS, meanwhile, has developed a facility-class instrument for fibre-optic fabrication in low-orbit space.
“We are manufacturing remarkably fine glass optical fibres in space,” says Torrey Pines Logic’s Volfson. “By taking advantage of microgravity, we can significantly improve the composition of optical fibres. Because our fibre has fewer imperfections than products manufactured on Earth, it performs much more efficiently. As a result, our product is highly sought after by customers requiring greater reliability in communications or power, for example.”
FOMS’ 4ftx1ft [1.2mx0.3m] manufacturing facility is in orbit as we speak. “We have made huge progress with this and are looking to open it to other companies looking to manufacture in space,” Volfson says. “This will boost accessibility for many start-ups as we have already done all of the groundwork.”
US-based firms LambdaVision and Space Tango have together made substantial advancements in harnessing both crystal growth in microgravity and thin-film deposition in microgravity – both for the development of artificial retinas.
LambdaVision’s innovative retinal implant comprises multiple layers of a light-activated protein derived from bacteria. The implant is produced by adding the protein through a layer-by-layer process – a process that is almost impossible to do with any uniformity on Earth.
However, in the microgravity conditions on the ISS, where sedimentation and convection are reduced, protein layers can be deposited more homogeneously, resulting in a higher-quality implant that requires fewer layers. This could reduce the number of materials needed to produce the implant, lower manufacturing costs, and accelerate production time to manufacture the implant.
“As we explore the seemingly immense ways in which microgravity can benefit the development and production of a wide range of products, our long-term collaboration with LambdaVision continues to provide us with valuable learnings that might one day help some patients regain sight and may also lead to other important production discoveries,” said Twyman Clements, co-founder and chief executive officer of Space Tango, in a press release.
The progress doesn’t end here. Israeli start-up SpacePharma has developed a miniature shoebox-sized laboratory which can be sent up to space and used to remotely conduct R&D experiments in microgravity.
“Our clients can access the lab from Earth,” explains Paul Kamoun, the company’s CMO. “They can activate, execute and collect data from different sensors – like temperature, pH imagery, spectrometry – in very precise volumes.”
Kamoun says that with help from SpacePharma, pharmaceutical firms can conduct R&D processes faster and more sustainably than ever. “In space, we have free energy. We don’t pollute our environment. We can use much more limited resources by using robotic systems to conduct fully automated experiments,” he explains. “We can do these experiments faster because the processes are accelerated in space.”
As a result, Kamoun believes he can slash the typical astronomical R&D costs. “It costs around $2.5bn for a firm to develop a new drug,” he says. “And that’s without knowing if it will be successful or not. Our costs are negligible compared to that. We are talking around $200,000 maximum for a pre-clinical test in orbit, which might lead to new intellectual property.”
Not surprisingly, a number of firms are already flocking to SpacePharma. “We are working with firms in cosmetics, food tech, agri-tech, biotechnology and more,” Kamoun says. “Stem cell studies for regenerative medicine are at the core of what we are doing at the moment, but the possibilities for what can be achieved are as endless as the complexity of the human body.”
SpacePharma is only at the beginning of its journey. “So far we have flown seven space missions, conducting experiments for 28 customers,” says Kamoun. “We fly three to four customer experiments on each mission, but from early 2024, that will rise to 16.”
That’s not all. “We are building our first factory as we speak, which we expect will enter orbit at the end of 2023 or early 2024,” Kamoun says. “Of course, this won’t be to manufacture products that you can already produce on Earth very cheaply and in large quantities. This is for products that are extremely expensive and that are currently sold in micrograms. This is where the opportunity lies for us.”
The ISS Program’s Harper says there are big opportunities for in-space manufacturing in other areas, such as semiconductors and radiation detection materials. “Here, efforts have just begun,” she says. “We estimate at least 10 learning cycles are needed before the companies hit the sweet spot in manufacturing in space, but it will happen.”
Overall, in the short term, Harper says Nasa is encouraging as many tests on the ISS as possible before its end of life in around 2030. “In the next decade or so, we can develop proficiency and perfect in-flight manufacturing processes,” she says.
In the long term, she expects to see the transition of the most promising technologies onto commercial low-earth orbit destinations, including vehicles and platforms for actual manufacturing to serve terrestrial markets. “The microgravity and vacuum environment of deep space offers additional opportunities to improve materials and manufacturing where extreme precision is required,” she says. “There is no end in sight for the value of developing materials and products in space, especially serving high-tech markets.”
What’s most exciting to astronaut Walker, however, is the fruition of those early efforts he made, and the realisation of Reagan’s dream back in the 1980s. “In-space manufacturing may not have happened as fast as we wanted or expected it to, but it will happen,” he says. “As long as there is the economical facilitation to get to space, work in space, and bring back products, then space will offer more and more opportunities for manufacturing, both in terms of discovering new processes and creating new, innovative products and medicines that can change our lives forever.”
The first space-manufactured product
The first physical product to be manufactured in space and then sold on Earth was 10-micrometre polystyrene spheres.
They were manufactured in space aboard the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger STS-6, Nasa’s sixth Space Shuttle mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on 4 April 1983.
The microscopic plastic beads are so small that 18,000 could fit on the head of a pin. They are used for the calibration of particle size measuring instruments, including optical and electron microscopes.
The technology necessary to produce these particles was developed by Lehigh University and Nasa. These were then sold by the American National Bureau of Standards to industry and academic laboratories in the mid and late 1980s.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.