The space-lab is busy with activity. In one corner, a liquid handling robot methodically transfers solutions from one plate to another. In a different section, a plate reader measures enzyme activity of a cell culture incubated with a drug candidate, while across the way a sequencer is busy reading off nucleotides. Then comes along an orbital tugboat; loaded with its cargo, it moves through the vacuum of space to deliver its payload to another research module, where more experiments will be run. In the background of it all lies the International Space Station (ISS) and the great expanse of the universe beyond.
This might sound like the setting for a new biomedical sci-fi thriller, but it’s not. This is the vision for Outpost, the commercial microgravity research facility that Houston-based NanoRacks hopes to realize in the coming years. It won’t be an easy task — there are major challenges to be met along the way — but NanoRacks has been working in the field for over ten years. They are intimately familiar with existing capabilities (some of which they’ve facilitated), and what’s sorely needed to move microgravity research from the facilities available on the ISS to a state of the art system akin to the most advanced research labs here on earth.
So why go through all of the trouble, when we have perfectly good research labs right here on earth, right now? NanoRacks CEO Jeff Manber believes that some of biomedicine’s most difficult problems could be unlocked by taking experimental systems into microgravity.
“You go into a frontier because it offers something new in terms of discovery. The microgravity environment is so new, so novel, that with the right modern research, the right laboratories, and the right equipment, I believe that the unique environment of space will advance important biomedical life sciences research,” says Manber. “Today’s headlines are about [suborbital] tourism, but one of the most important reasons for going to space is for the effort toward breakthroughs in biomedicine.”
The right laboratories and the right equipment
As Manber said, such breakthroughs will require the right laboratories and the right equipment. Research in microgravity has crept along for decades, limited by equipment designed to work for only a single experiment, limited space and resources available on the ISS, not to mention precious astronaut time for handling the experiments, and limited access to the microgravity environment (launches don’t happen every day, after all). To change all of this, he believes, commercializing space is key — and he’s leading the charge with NanoRacks.
The company has already produced several pieces of equipment that have travelled to and been used on the ISS, including the Plate Reader-2, a commercial off-the-shelf plate reader/spectrophotometer found in almost every lab here on Earth and that runs in space exactly as it would sitting on your lab bench on the ground. But this is just a start — much more equipment is needed, and a fully functioning, state-of-the-art laboratory like Outpost has never been built in microgravity before.
“There’s a long way to go until we know how to build a research lab in space, and much, much more so until we know how to manage a fully functioning, powered, pressurized lab, capable of hosting human life,” says NanoRacks Commercial Director Adrian Mangiuca. “But we’re on the way, and that process has already been kicked off with NASA and multiple studies. We hope it will really ramp up in the next few years to the point where we have functioning, crewed modules in space, free flying from the ISS and capable of hosting these types of research labs by the mid-to-late 2020s.”
“We’re hoping that after the first one or two [pieces of hardware] the momentum becomes apparent. We need to have key first, second, third pieces of hardware, and that’s what we’re working on,” adds Manber.
Conceptual illustration of NanoRacks’ Outpost space lab. Image source: NanoRacks
But not everyone is buying into NanoRacks’ commercial approach to microgravity research. Several entities don’t want commercial going to space because they feel genuine research in space is going to be distorted by entities that are profit-driven.
“That hurts me,” says Manber, adding that he likes to answer his critics by using a bookstore vs. library analogy to emphasize the difference between commercial microgravity research and that done through today’s system reliant on state government grants.
“There are bookstores and there are libraries. If you need something in a hurry, and you want to be in the front of the line, and you want to own it, and you want to write in it, you go to a bookstore and you pay money. Likewise, if you work with NanoRacks, you can go to the front of the line, you don’t have to go through an extensive review by the government as to whether your experiment has scientific merit — you can take a hunch, try something new,” he says.
In other words, commercializing microgravity research can open up incredible new doors of opportunity for those who are invested in tomorrow’s research but have never thought about the absence of gravity and how that may affect their experimental systems — and potentially their success. Some big pharma companies have already placed their bets on microgravity research — and the dividends for human health care could be huge.
Importantly, commercializing microgravity research will ensure continual injection of funds for hardware development. “A lot of the hardware in the space station is still first generation, meaning of several decades old — that wouldn’t happen in the commercial laboratory,” emphasizes Manber. It may be a commercial pathway that NanoRacks is taking, but it’s a pathway that utilizes modern technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous platforms “to make life better for those of us who were who are on earth,” Manber reminds us.
Making space worthwhile to investors
Yet to blow open the doors on microgravity research in the way NanoRacks hopes to with Outpost, it will be necessary to secure the injection of private capital investment. Investors seeking big returns for their big risks have wisely written off space, says Manber, because it is not currently optimal for private capital investment. So, while he certainly doesn’t ignore the technical challenges to realizing Outpost, in his opinion, NanoRacks’ bigger challenge is “creating an environment that is optimal for commercial research, commercial investors, with commercial customers.” Quite simply, “the goal at NanoRacks is to create an environment on Outpost that is lightyears ahead in allowing commercial investors to take the plunge,” he adds.
This means considering things such as intellectual property — can the government take the IP and are the patents defensible, for example — as well as the logistics of delivering experimental payloads to space and doing so regularly, and ensuring their safe return. “You wouldn’t get a lot of people investing in FedEx if one in six of the packages arrived crumpled and destroyed,” laughs Manber.
It also means demonstrating to investors the existence of an ecosystem that can actually make Outpost work.
“Jeff Bezos was able to launch Amazon because the infrastructure existed,” says Manber. “We don’t have that, so it is really important to us that the government continue to assist others in developing things like orbital tugs that move cargo from one platform to another or routine return of products in a safe way. We may see that [in a few years] with Dream Chaser, which will allow products to land on a runway. You can begin to envision the ecosystem: Dragon comes down with SpaceX parachuting into the ocean, [soon] Dream Chaser [will be] coming down on a runway — you’re beginning to see that we have robustness going up and we have robustness coming down. It’s beginning to be worthwhile for folks to invest in.”
Thrilling the public
Once investors, VPs of R&D, members of the Board of Directors of big pharma companies, for example, are excited, the next step is to thrill the public. And that comes through the first discoveries, says Manber. Right now people are focused on space tourism not just because it’s cool and promises new frontiers to people, but because people can see it in the near future. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are promising trips to space for the non-astronauts among us very soon. We feel one step closer with every test flight.
Once people begin to taste and see the effects microgravity research could have on them personally — say, an improved stem-cell based therapy for treating cancer or a drug for Alzheimer’s — then people will begin to truly understand the importance of research in microgravity for furthering our race and helping us live longer, better lives. With Outpost, people may be personally affected by microgravity research in only a decade. That may seem like a long time at face value, but given where we are today, it would be an amazing leap forward — one that will be built on the momentum of NanoRacks, NASA, and many other companies and organizations working on the commercial microgravity research ecosystem.
“It’s a new era in biomedical research,” says Manber. “A lot of folks know about Elon Musk and the launch of Falcon Heavy. That same innovation is beginning to occur in space research, and that’s the news that we’re going to bring to people.”
Space will be a big focus at SynBioBeta 2019 this October 1-3 in San Francisco, where thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and researchers from NASA to UC Berkeley (and more) will share their work. Want to stay on top of space happenings all year? Sign up for our BetaSpace newsletter.3