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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So what else wouldn’t pass muster? Flying up stacks of T-shirts or coffee mugs that say “I’ve been to space” and selling them in gift shops. Other than that, the opportunities for NanoRacks to market access to the station are wide open. Thus far, the company offers three types of station services: research space in the racks, small satellite deployment, and space on a platform scheduled to be installed on the station’s exterior in 2014.

The experiment boxes called NanoLabs have been the company’s bread and butter. They are sold in one-size-fits-all units, known as cube forms. A single unit is a box 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters (about four inches cubed); there are also two- and four-unit sizes. Each NanoLab box comes with a standard circuit board that activates the experiment’s procedures, like scheduled watering for seedlings, opening a control valve to mix fluids, or triggering a camera to take timed images. Once aboard the station, the box plugs into the NanoRacks, which provide power, water, cooling, and data recording.

The NanoLabs illustrate what Manber calls his “guiding principles” for opening space to commerce: standardization, miniaturization, and open-source interfaces, like the cubesat form itself. It was developed (in 1999, by engineers at Cal Poly and Stanford) to give researchers anywhere in the world not only a simple standard structure to use but also access to the original design so that they could easily modify or adapt it.

Carl Carruthers Jr., a researcher at the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas, is a NanoRacks customer who benefited from the fourth of Manber’s guiding principles: A company is only as good as its customer service. Carruthers studies protein crystal growth, an area of research that both Manber and Mike Johnson believe will bring them business in the future because it is especially suited to their company’s reliance on standardization. Characterizing a specific type of protein can lead to greater understanding of a disease or a genetic trait, so biologists grow them in repeating patterns, or crystals, until they become strong enough to withstand imaging. But this can be tricky. The proteins grow in a suspension fluid, and on Earth, the fluid is subject to convection and gravitational forces that cause the crystal to move as it forms. Though minuscule, these movements can result in irregular growth.

Many crystal growth experiments were flown on the space shuttle under the theory that the crystals might grow better when freed from the forces of gravity. But Carruthers flew experiments twice aboard the shuttle, and both times, he says, “I just got sludge back.” Determined to figure out why, he approached NanoRacks, which had provided the NanoLab, transportation, and support for his shuttle experiments; the tests had flown on the last two missions when the Kennedy Space Center was mobbed with visitors and it could take an hour just to get off campus. Says Carruthers: “These guys actually rented a mobile home and stayed in the parking lot so they could be there to help with our payloads. That just blew me away.”

Carruthers wanted to know why the shuttle experiments were using equipment that seemed decades behind the times. He suggested to NanoRacks that they use the same kind of standardized, miniaturized technology being used in labs around the world today. Manber and Johnson called up a biological research support company called Emerald Bio, which manufactures a microchip for holding fluids—it’s like a tray of test-tubes, only microscopic—that can be injected with protein solutions. A major challenge of growing protein crystals is that scientists don’t know what conditions are best for different proteins, and the only way to find out is to put each one in as many variations of conditions as possible. Emerald Bio’s microfluidic chip, about the size of a microscope slide, can hold 800 to 900 concentrations at once.

Earlier this spring, NanoRacks worked with Carruthers to fly a test with 25 chips containing close to 10,000 conditions, each one an attempt at protein growth. Because the microgravity experiment used standard industry equipment, Carruthers could easily run an identical control experiment on Earth. The shoebox-size experiment returned from space on a Soyuz and then made the long trip back from Kazakhstan to Carruthers’ lab. “I was floored,” the scientist says. “We had tons and tons of crystals. We had more crystals from the microgravity sample than we actually did on the ground.”

If it turns out that the protein crystals grown in microgravity actually lead to useful results—something still not yet proven—Mike Johnson sees the space station serving not just as a commercial research lab but also as a commercial manufacturer. “Protein crystal growth, that’s not really an experiment, that’s a thing we’re mass-producing,” says Johnson. This could also apply to stem cells, which are blank slates that can differentiate into any type of cell in the body. Some experiments have shown that the way stem cells differentiate is altered in microgravity. Scientists don’t know why yet, but if they could take advantage of frequent, low-cost research in low Earth orbit, they increase their chances of figuring it out. Since each stem cell is specific to a person, Johnson sees the potential for a bank of stem cells available for you the next time you need a replacement liver. He admits, “This is a little far out, we’re not quite there yet.”

In the few years that NanoRacks has been operating, Jeff Goldstein’s organization has already sent a few dozen experiments to the station. Goldstein is the director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which posts on its website a row of countdown clocks for its upcoming station launches. The center’s mission is to immerse students—kindergarten through college—in science research, from proposal writing to data analysis. Goldstein had wanted for years to get students doing hands-on space research, but couldn’t find the right fit until NASA signed the Space Act Agreement with NanoRacks. Partnered with NanoRacks, he was able to create a national program. “I relate to them very well,” he says. “We’re a small organization that can turn on a dime, which is absolutely essential. If you see an opportunity, you don’t have to have a committee meeting for six months to do it.” With NanoRacks’ fast turnaround time, the students Goldstein works with can propose an experiment and get it to the station within a single school year.

The center is another beneficiary of NanoRacks’ devotion to customer service. Its experimenters were among the first to use MixStix, a standard NanoRacks offering that operates like a glowstick: The astronaut bends a plastic-enclosed tube until a glass inside breaks, mixing the substances and starting a chemical reaction. When the sticks were returned, some of the students found that their experiments hadn’t been initiated. NanoRacks employees looked into the problem and discovered that although they’d told the astronauts to bend the tubes, they hadn’t explicitly said how far, and some of the tubes had not been bent enough to break the glass.

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