ZBLAN is different. It’s not for NASA. Discovered in the 1970s, ZBLAN is a strange and fickle material. A type of glass composed of heavy metal fluorides, instead of the typical silica, it has absorption and scattering properties that could make it a good fit for high-end lasers and even undersea internet cables. But the material is fragile, and, because of the varied densities of its component elements, develops microcrystals as it cools, ruining its potential. On Earth, ZBLAN producers make do with large facilities that drop beads of molten glass down multiple stories, drawing out the material into strands. But so far, microgravity offers the best environment to prevent the density separations and avoid the costly crystallization. The US Air Force first tested the hypothesis in the 1990s using parabolic flights.
Made in Space has already sent up its microwave-sized ZBLAN lab on past SpaceX launches. Unlike a typical manufacturing facility, where a machine gets loaded and reloaded with its source materials, this one does more traveling. The precursor materials are preloaded into the lab; when it’s done churning out cable, astronauts send the machine back down to Earth with the finished fiber inside. “We try to be respectful of the amount of time astronauts have,” says Rush. “They take it out, plug in power and data, and float away.” (In the future, the company plans to station a manufacturing facility in orbit, so that only the material comes up and down.) The project remains in the research phase, producing only small amounts of fiber, but Rush says he plans to launch a bigger facility next year that can produce enough ZBLAN to sell to customers.
Even with high costs of launch and return, the math for orbital manufacturing works out, Rush says. A kilogram of material can produce thousands of meters of ZBLAN, and each meter sells for more than $100. The company says it has invested millions in ZBLAN development, none of which came from NASA.
“It might not ultimately pan out,” Rush says. “And even if it does, you can’t build something with one foundation.” Made in Space is planning to launch “four to six” other payloads in the next year to test other materials that might benefit from microgravity manufacturing.
For Bridenstine, another untapped line of business is the production of medicine. Last month, NASA launched the Industrial Biomedicine Alliance with the University of Pittsburgh. Medical research is already a core component of what the ISS does, but the idea, says Bill Wagner, director of Pitt’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is to find business models that will excite investors. Materials are furthest along—the Institute is already experimenting on the ISS with degradable metal alloys, useful for coronary stents. There’s also excitement that microgravity might delay differentiation in stem cells, widening the window for experimentation, and that the disease-speeding effects of microgravity might make the ISS an attractive place for testing drugs using so-called organs on a chip instead of humans.
Still, commercializing drugs and devices takes a big investment—hundreds of millions of dollars to support, say, a clinical trial—and the research is still nascent. Wagner thinks that kind of money will take a while to reel in; the alliance, he says, is more in the stage of gathering ideas that might start intriguing bigger investors. “I might not put down a huge dollar bet, but I’d want to keep that seat at the table,” he says.
George Washington’s Hertzfeld isn’t convinced NASA’s plans have legs; attempts to kick off space manufacturing date back to the Reagan era, after all. But there are a few reasons for optimism, he says. One is that the ZBLAN plans involve improving a product already on the market on Earth, rather than trying to generate demand from scratch. Then there’s the nascent orbital economy: companies already involved in launching and ferrying payloads to the ISS, and in designing the facilities and robots. Plus, there are opportunities for satellite maintenance and tourism that could help justify a stable human presence in orbit.