Fifteen times a day, some 250 miles above our heads, the International Space Station circles the Earth. An elegant H-shaped contraption roughly the length of a football field, it has been a fixture in the sky for so long–13 years and counting–that its novelty has long since receded. Its rotating crew of six astronauts have, meanwhile, come to seem less like celebrities and more like working stiffs, albeit working stiffs who pull long shifts in a microgravity environment where beds come with buckles to prevent sleepers from literally drifting off at night. Since its launch in 2000, the space station has mainly served as a place in which astronauts from NASA and foreign space agencies conduct experiments involving health and the physical sciences. It was never intended to help private companies improve their products and market share.
That’s about to change. In 2011, following a directive from Congress, NASA handed off management for a portion of the space station’s U.S. research modules to the specially created not-for-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Congress wanted to broaden access to the station and utilize it as a platform for innovation. In essence, that meant executives at the Melbourne, Florida–based CASIS would sell the virtues of the space station to American businesses, not-for-profits, and academics–sort of like you might sell office space in Silicon Valley, except with a profoundly more complicated commute.
“There really is no business model for this,” says Duane Ratliff, COO of CASIS, which now has 33 employees and a federally funded $15 million budget. “Our first challenge was: Can we identify the value that microgravity research has?”
That’s hardly obvious. Soon after they started, the CASIS team concluded that use of the station should be geared toward pharmaceutical and material-science researchers. At least theoretically, a microgravity environment can be a unique place for drug companies to test medications for diseases that cause muscle wasting and bone loss (both conditions have been associated with low-gravity environments).
“The biggest challenge,” says Ratliff, “is getting someone like Merck or Novartis, who have never done research in space or even contemplated it, and explaining it to them.” CASIS quickly signed up both companies: Merck is already running tests in space on monoclonal antibodies, and this spring Novartis is shipping 20 genetically modified mice into space, apparently as part of a study on an experimental drug.
The space station also has research uses beyond pharmaceuticals. Procter & Gamble has signed on to study compounds used in a variety of detergents, and CASIS also persuaded Cobra Puma Golf to test club coatings.
It may be a measure of the promise–or the mystery–of space research that none of these companies are yet willing to talk publicly about the details of their work. For CASIS, though, their involvement alone constitutes a move in the right direction. The organization’s purpose is not precisely to make money for the government or to pay back taxpayers’ investment in the space station, which at an estimated cost of $100 billion has been called the most expensive man-made object ever created. Rather, it is to see whether a lab in space can also be used to improve life on earth. “The ultimate goal would not be that CASIS becomes a multibillion-dollar company,” says Ratliff, “but that it enables other companies to become multibillion-dollar companies because they used it and their work had a value in the marketplace.”
Ratliff is well aware he is treading into the unknown; even on earth, the commercialization of science can take a very long time. “I think expectations should be moderated on whether we can earn income here,” says Scott Pace, the head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “It may just be too early.”
Still, the first wave of CASIS clients might benefit in another way: marketing. At the dawn of the space age, a sugary powdered drink called Tang leveraged its association with NASA to huge success. In 2014, stamping made in space on your golf club might not guarantee that you’ve created a better putter, but if your competition can’t say the same thing, it may nevertheless be worth bragging about.
NASA’s privatization initiatives are creating opportunities for companies that can ferry cargo and crew. Who’s vying for a piece of the space-commuting pie?