Now Even Kids Can Afford to Use the Space Station

A new company makes it easier to get your payloads to orbit.

Among NanoRacks’ customers: Three New York fifth graders who created an experiment on fish-egg development that arrived on the station in 2011. (Erica Miller / Ballston Spa Life)
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Last July, Jeffrey Manber says, NASA and the American Astronautical Society shocked him by presenting his company, NanoRacks, with the International Space Station Innovation Award of the Year. “In the ’90s, people at Johnson Space Center were following me to the bathroom because I was working for the Russians, and now they’re giving me a medal,” Manber says, and pauses. “They still could be following me to the bathroom, I don’t know.”

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NanoRacks, which Manber established in 2009, provides a pioneering service for anyone who wants to place an experiment in space. The company is named for the platforms—racks—it built to house small science experiments on the space station. Now permanently installed in Japan’s Kibo module, two NanoRacks have a total of 32 locker spaces for small, cube-shaped laboratories—NanoLabs, the company calls them—that plug into the station’s power supply and data ports. But a NanoRacks customer gets more than a box for an experiment. The company offers advice about available equipment and instruction in how to use it—initially, with tutorials like “How to Build a NanoRacks Payload,” which can be downloaded from the company website. NanoRacks staff also perform the safety review required for station occupancy, get the box assigned to a launch manifest, fill out the thousands of pages of paperwork, provide support and data collection while the experiment is on the station, and, if required, make sure it’s returned to Earth.

“One of my goals is to Walmart space,” says Manber, in a voice that sounds a lot like Senator Chuck Schumer’s. “There is a strain of the community that still believes space is a cathedral…but today there’s no place for that sort of exclusivity. Our motto at NanoRacks is ‘Space is for Everyone.’ ”

When Congress established the station as a National Laboratory in 2005, 50 percent of the U.S. research area was made available for public use, but today only a little more than a third of that lab is being used for non-NASA experiments. Manber thinks he has the solution: Set prices that are not much different from the cost of research on the ground, protect your customer’s intellectual property, and provide 24/7 customer service.

“My whole career has been to make space just another place to do business,” says Manber, who got his start as a space businessman in the 1980s with PanAmSat. That company brought satellite communications into the commercial market by breaking the monopoly held by Intelsat, which at the time was run by a coalition of governments established by treaty. In 1992, Manber went to work for the Russians, heading the American office of Energia and representing the company as it competed for business in the post-cold-war international space industry. After nearly a decade, he moved to MirCorp, where he solidified much of his philosophy about doing business in space. “There’s nothing wrong with having advertising and sponsorship and commercial companies and schools, as well as government organizations,” working together to support space exploration, says Manber. Embracing this strategy, MirCorp negotiated deals to use Russia’s space station, Mir, commercially—with Dennis Tito to become the first space tourist, and with NBC to produce a “Survivor”-style show where the winner would visit the station. Mir was deorbited in 2001, before either came to be. (Tito later fulfilled his dream on the ISS.) “I learned at MirCorp what it takes to close a deal, a commercial deal that happens to be in space. That’s what I’ve taken with me to NanoRacks,” says Manber. He’s also brought what he learned from growing up in a family in the New York restaurant business: Keep your customers happy.

In 2009, Manber was one of the first to sign a Space Act Agreement with NASA to operate aboard the International Space Station. The agency began the program of competitively awarded partnerships to help get scientists, other researchers, and educators to use the space station for microgravity experiments. The agreement doesn’t award money but rather exclusive access to the station. NASA provides free transportation aboard any available station-servicing vehicle (the Russian Soyuz or Progress, Japan’s HTV, the European ATV, SpaceX’s Dragon, or Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus); in return, partner companies can earn fees from customers for help with the logistics of station research.

In 2011, NASA moved the administration of these agreements to the non-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (see “The World’s Highest Laboratory,” Feb./Mar. 2012). NanoRacks is one of 22 microgravity research facilitators that CASIS calls implementation partners. All partners help researchers by providing either equipment or consultation, but NanoRacks is unique, says Duane Ratliff, CASIS chief operating officer. Instead of waiting for CASIS to refer customers to them, Manber and his colleagues seek them out. And instead of relying on NASA funding, Manber raised funds and invested his own money to build the hardware used aboard the station. That means the company “can actually treat this as a business opportunity where they charge a fee for service,” says Ratliff. “The hardware provides an analytical capability, and NanoRacks will arrange for the analysis to be conducted. That’s really a new way of doing business on the ISS.”

Says Manber: “We carved out in our Space Act Agreement that our customers own their patents. That’s not a trivial thing.” Besides that, he adds, the experiments are not subjected to peer review, as are experiments supported by NASA. “So you can try something different and novel,” he says, “and you don’t have to share. We have customers who are highly proprietary, including in the government, and they’re willing to pay money to avoid peer-group review, and they do this for competitive advantage.”

NASA imposes only two restrictions on a payload brought aboard the station: It must adhere to safety rules, and it must have a valid scientific reason to fly in space. “If one of the commercial companies decided to fly the latest and greatest My Pet Rock, that would not have met our [standards for] need of access to space,” says Jason Crusan, currently NASA’s director for advanced exploration systems, who negotiated the agreement with NanoRacks in 2009. Crusan admits, “There was probably skepticism at the beginning of whether or not a purely commercial entity would be able to uphold that standard, but [NanoRacks] has been very diligent about doing that.”

An early example of the company’s diligence: A NanoRacks customer wanted to do a perfume experiment in space. The experiment would likely have passed the safety tests, but NanoRacks chief technology officer Mike Johnson nixed it. Johnson had worked for Spacehab, the maker of cargo and experiment modules that rode to space in the shuttle cargo bay, and probably has as much experience with getting experiments into orbit as anyone in NASA today. He saw a minuscule chance that one of those vials of perfume might break, and he didn’t want his company to be remembered as the one that stank up the station for the rest of its orbiting life.

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