While the space race’s public image has often focused on billionaire joyrides, tech giants are quietly exploring the realm of off-planet manufacturing. Startups are asking fundamental questions about producing computer components, harvesting stem cells, and manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space.
Research endeavors in this direction are already underway. NASA has granted a $2 million award to scientists investigating how zero-gravity conditions can enhance stem cell and gene therapy production. Defense company Northrop Grumman has partnered with a startup aiming to manufacture semiconductors in space. By the end of this decade, experts predict that everyday items will incorporate elements created beyond Earth’s boundaries.
The motivation behind off-planet manufacturing lies in the potential to relocate heavy industry and environmentally impactful processes away from Earth. Jeff Bezos envisions a future where heavy manufacturing and polluting industries operate beyond our planet’s confines.
Advocates argue that specific space conditions, including gravity absence, low temperatures, and near-perfect vacuums, offer superior quality and efficiency for manufacturing. For example, pharmaceutical companies are exploring the possibility of producing drugs in space. Merck collaborates with the International Space Station (ISS) to create proteins in zero-gravity, resulting in smaller and more uniform crystals for oncology drugs.
NASA’s engagement with commercial partners to facilitate off-Earth manufacturing has been ongoing since around 2016. Their objective is to establish a “low-earth orbit” (LEO) economy to bolster the United States’ technological leadership. However, transitioning into this new era of space capitalism is not without challenges.
In a recent incident, a startup intended to operate a “space drugs factory,” producing crystals for an anti-viral medication in Earth’s orbit. However, regulatory hurdles led to the denial of a re-entry license by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the US Air Force.
Looking ahead, as the ISS is scheduled for decommissioning in 2031, NASA plans to rent space on commercial space vehicles, saving billions of dollars. The rise of privately owned shuttles will likely increase the demand for in-orbit production.
Companies involved in off-planet manufacturing anticipate a surge in space-produced items by the end of the decade, thanks to the growing availability of commercial space stations. As the cost of space travel decreases, so will the expense of conducting work in space, leading to commercially viable applications.
For instance, Varda, a company currently facing challenges, aspires to launch four capsules into space every six months to manufacture pharmaceuticals. Their mission reflects the broader vision of leveraging the unique capabilities of space to transform industries on Earth.
By Impact Lab