Space Manufacturing: The Common Wisdom is Wrong
by edward wright
Robert Heinlein said that common wisdom is almost always wrong, by a factor of at least ten thousand to one.
During the 1980′s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for materials processing in space. A lot of it was driven by a popular book called The Third Industrial Revolution, written by engineer G. Harry Stine. Stine believed that access to the space environment, including weightlessness, vacuum, and radiation, would revolutionize manufacturing.
Today, everyone “knows better.” We’re still doing experiments with materials processing, fluid physics, etc. in microgravity but almost no one expects these experiments to lead to large-scale, profitable manufacturing in space. Instead, microgravity is viewed as a research tool. The emphasis is on understanding phenomena that can improve processes on the ground. Once we understand how something works in microgravity, we can almost certainly find ways of reproducing the observed phenomenon more cheaply on the ground.
What “everyone knows” is wrong. In fact, products have already been manufactured in space and sold on Earth.
One of the first materials-processing experiments to be performed aboard the Shuttle involved the creation of a product called monodisperse latex microspheres – small plastic spheres of highly uniform size. Monodisperse spheres can be made on Earth, but there are difficulties in making them beyond a certain size because gravity interferes. Dr. John W. Vanderhoff of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania developed a Monodisperse Latex Reactor which flew on some of the earliest Space Shuttle flights.
Monodisperse microspheres have a number of medical and research applications. They are most commonly used for calibrating microscopes and other laboratory equipment, but they can also be used to measure the size of pores in the wall of the intestine for cancer research and in the eye for glaucoma research. In addition, they can potentially be used to carry drugs and radioactive isotopes for cancer treatments.
The Monodisperse Latex Reactor flew on the third Space Shuttle flight (STS-3), where it produced microspheres up to 5 microns in diameter. It was reflown on STS-4, STS-6, and STS-7, ultimately producing microspheres up to 10 microns in diameter. These spheres were later tested and certified by the National Bureau of Standards, which concluded “the space-made materials were found to be superior in terms of individual particle sphericity, narrowness of size distribution, and, importantly, in particle rigidity.”
As a result of these tests, the National Bureau of Standards began to sell these microspheres, which it called “space beads” as Standard Reference Materials (SRMs). The National Bureau of Standards developed five SRMs based on space beads, which became the first space-manufactured products to be offered for commercial sale.
Space beads are still sold by the National Bureau of Standards (now renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology.) Purchasers have included major companies in the pharmaceutical, petrochemical, chemical, and biomedical-instrumentation industries, supply houses, government customers (the EPA, FDA, US Geological Survey, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and NASA), and non-profit laboratories such as the Battelle Memorial Institute. International purchasers include laboratories in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and Thailand. Space beads are also sold by the European Community’s Bureau Communautaire de Reference.
Space beads have been incorporated into various standard tests. The US Pharmacopeia specifies the use of space beads for calibrating the liquid-borne particle counters in a test called “Particulate Matter in Injections.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists space beads as a physical standard for assessing water and sediment quality in Standard and Reference Materials for Marine Science. Space beads have also been used to monitor air quality in connection with the Environmental Protection Agency’s PM10 standard for particulate matter with diameter of 10 microns or less. In the medical field, space beads have been valuable as a calibration standard for blood-cell counters. (The size of the beads is very close to the the mean diameter of red blood cells.)
Although still offered for sale, space beads have not been produced since the 1980′s because of the fairly limited demand. Due to the size of the beads, a small quantity goes a long way. The limited quantities produced aboard the Space Shuttle will last for a while.
Space beads were not the first commercially available product to be manufactured in microgravity, however. Drop towers such as the Zero Gravity Research Facility in Ohio can create short periods of microgravity (up to a few seconds). NASA uses drop towers for research, but commercial drop towers (called shot towers) have been used to make ball bearings and ammunition (shot) for centuries.
The reason we can’t produce ball bearings and many other products in space is, quite simply, a matter of cost. A ball bearing produced in space would cost hundreds, if not thousands, of times more than a bearing produced on Earth.
The problem of cost was immediately recognized by Harry Stine, an engineer with experience in industrial processes. He emphasized, over and over again, that reducing the cost of access to space was key to space manufacturing (and, in fact, almost everything we want to do in space). This was confirmed by numerous reports from major aerospace companies, which found that launch costs of $500 per pound or less were necessary for space manufacturing to be viable.
Unfortunately, that message was lost on many “new space” activists who came later, most of whom did not have Stine’s technical/business background. They replaced the gospel of cheap access to space with a new dogma, which said cheap access had to wait until after NASA created a market (by building the International Space Station, by “returning to the Moon, this time to stay,” by sending astronauts to Mars…).
The result of this “cart before the horse” approach was entirely predictable. NASA spent a hundred billion dollars building the International Space Station. It is now, finally, spending a tiny fraction of that on commercial resupply services, which newspacers consider a great victory. Other grandiose schemes, like the Bush Vision of Space Exploration, have not even gotten off the ground.
A rational space policy would have provided incentives for the development of cheap space transportation before committing billions of dollars to building the International Space Station or exploring the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. Such an approach would have gotten NASA more capability for less money. More importantly, it would have enabled a new industrial revolution as Stine described.
The United States has never had a rational space policy, however.
Space manufacturing did not fail, as common wisdom has it. It was never given a chance to succeed. The reputation of space manufacturing was further damaged by the irrational exuberance of some International Space Station supporters who insisted, contrary to all logic and evidence, that launch costs did not matter. They predicted all sorts of useful commercial applications for ISS, from hosting movie studios to producing drugs that would cure cancer.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before the business community, especially the investment community, will start to take space manufacturing seriously again. The new suborbital spacecraft, which promise low-cost flights and rapid re-flights, will allow for a much-needed boom in materials-processing research.
Suborbital flights will be sufficient for a lot of research, but they don’t provide a lot of time for production. To go from experiments to actual manufacturing will undoubtedly require low-cost space platforms and low-cost access to orbit. By low-cost access to orbit, we don’t mean the cost reductions currently being demonstrated by SpaceX but dramatic cost reductions, which will await a second generation of commercial launch systems, which will be fully reusable. There are at least two paths to such systems. They could evolve from orbital systems like the Falcon, as SpaceX proposes, or from the lower performance, but fully reusable, suborbital vehicles now in development. Both will be attempted in the next few years, and we will see which works best. It’s also possible that someone may attempt a fresh design from a blank sheet of paper.
When low-cost access to orbit is finally achieved, we will be able to determine the true potential of space manufacturing. Until then, reports of its death are premature.
Edward Wright is chairman of the United States Rocket Academy and project manager of Citizens in Space. You can find more articles by Mr. Wright at the Citizens in Space web site.
Tags: EPA, International Space Station, ISS, microgravity, NASA, NewSpace, NOAA, outer space, Robert Heinlein, Space, Space beads, space manufacturing, Space Shuttle, spacecraft, spaceflight, SpaceX, STS-3, STS-4, sts-6, STS-7, Suborbital flight, Zero Gravity Research Facility