Private companies, educational institutions, and other organizations who send experiments aboard the International Space Station face a challenge: Each experiment sent aboard the ISS requires extensive safety and security checks—and about 1,000 pages of documentation. In the past few years, a handful of companies worldwide have started handling all those details for space entrepreneurs. They're the FedExes and DHLs for posting packages beyond Earth.
NanoRacks, one of the first companies to enter the field, operates the first commercial laboratory in space aboard the ISS and a panel laboratory that's attached to the space station. For the price of $30,000 for educational institutions or $60,000 for commercial entities, NanoRacks handles all the logistics related to sending experiments into space. The small, for-profit company will handle the paperwork, find transportation among the many vehicles headed to the ISS, install the experiment, and take care of all governmental relations for would-be space experimenters. The standard NanoRack experiment stays in space for 30 days.
The company has delivered 41 payloads to the ISS so far and has another 80 under contract, Jeffrey Mamber, NanoRacks' managing director, tells Fast Company. NanoRacks "formed in late 2009, and recognized that utilization of the Space Station could be used as a commercial pathway. If we could market commercial services for the International Space Station, we'd find a market. We signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA on September 9, 2009 and self-financed everything for the first two years, to show there is a market. We are the world's first private laboratory in space, and we created a pathway and infrastructure that didn't exist before."
Besides NanoRacks, several other companies also offer outer space logistics solutions for international clients. According to the managers of the United States' lab aboard the ISS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), organizations sending payloads to the space station have multiple logistics options (PDF). These companies, such as Astrium, Astrotech, Bionetics, and Thales Alenia Space, form part of a tightly knit ecosystem of space logistics experts. Employees at the firms help clients with the highly complicated space travel process, as well as navigating the byzantine bureaucracies of NASA and its worldwide counterparts.
According to Mamber, NanoRacks wants to be a "concierge to the stars" for its clients that "streamlines the NASA integration process [...] It takes nine months from contract signing to launch. We take care of everything with NASA—access to laboratory space, the launch vehicle, deployment, everything. NASA doesn't want to deal with consumer payloads, but we do."
The primary NanoRacks lab, one of two turnkey commercial labs on the ISS, consists of proprietary equipment based around a series of plug-and-play modules. The second lab is actually located on a small external platform attached to the ISS, which gives experimenters access to outer space itself. The company's clients have included a variety of American educational institutions (including many high schools recruited through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program), the Israeli Air Force's Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, plus numerous commercial clients. Although manifests are available online, Mamber said that many private clients are circumspect about making details of their experiments public—many involve trade secrets as well as sensitive information.
However, sometimes information about experiments is promoted to the public. Scotland's Ardbeg whisky distillery worked with NanoRacks to conduct space experiments on their signature product. Using NanoRacks' facility, the distillery tested the behavior of flavor-altering organic compounds called terpenes in zero gravity.
Most companies working in for-profit space travel coordinate their activities, Esther Dyson, an early investor in NanoRacks, tells Fast Company. "Almost all of us work together via the Commercial Space Federation on common issues, such as regulations, raising investor interest (though we compete when it comes to actually raising the money!), encouraging space ports and the like."
NanoRacks primarily sends clients' experiments into space via government space vehicles, but recently hitched a ride aboard the private SpaceX Dragon (where an error caused students' payloads to lose critical refrigeration during the transportation process). Shipping space is booked via NASA and the company works extensively with the space agency's staff and various space centers. Next up for NanoRacks is an iPhone-based space research platform.
[Image: Flickr user NASA]