So far, the public faces of the space program have been billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson joyriding around in rockets, having maybe the most expensive midlife crisis in history. But behind the scenes, big tech is thinking more seriously about the first non-Earth production lines.
For some startups, the most pressing questions in manufacturing right now are: how can you build computer parts, harvest stem cells, or produce pharmaceuticals while in space?
A group of founders say it's already happening, at least at the research level. Scientists who want to test if zero gravity conditions can aid in the creation of new stem cells and genetherapies have been given a $2 million grant from Nasa. Northrop Grumman and a startup that aims to produce semiconductors in space have collaborated. By the end of this decade, experts say, we will be using items that contain some element that was built off of Earth.
Jeff Bezos, CBS's Gayle King, told CBS's Gayle King that heavy manufacturing and air-polluting industries could operate away from Earth. Bezos said the president's words came from a speech he delivered.
Achieving better quality than in land, advocates argue that certain conditions in space, such as the lack of gravity, low temperatures and near-perfect vacuum, mean that certain ingredients, such as crystals, can be made at a better quality than on land.
Pharmaceutical firms are betting that new drugs can be created in space. Merck's ventures include the International Space Station and the International Space Station, which work together to produce proteins in zero-gravity. Astronauts conducting experiments for the pharmaceutical giant have discovered that crystals grown for the production of its oncology drug Keytruda are smaller and more uniform than the ones grown on earth.
The scientists at Bristol Myers Squibb have said they're testing how to use resources built off-planet to make drugs easier to store. BMS' associate director of material science and engineering, Robert Garmise, said the company was involved in a number of different therapeutic fields such as immunology, fibrosis, cardiovascular disease and neuroscience.
In Space Production Applications portfolio manager Kevin Engelbert, of Nasa, said the agency has collaborated with commercial partners to enable off-Earth manufacturing since about 2016. The goal is to establish a 'low-earth orbit' economy that will enhance the US's leadership in the tech industry. In July, Varda Space Industries, a California-based startup, launched its first space capsule into orbit around the earth. It was intended to be a space drugs factory, as the tech news site Gizmodo said, that autonomously grew crystals of the drug ritonavir, an anti-viral medication used to treat HIV.
Just as the capsule was due to land at a Utah airbase yesterday, Tech Crunch reported, the Federal Aviation Administration and the US air force denied Varda's request to return to earth.
The FAA statement said Varda had not secured a re-entry license before launching its vehicle into space.
It's a move that the agency says will save $1.3 billion in 2031 alone.
Space Tango, a company that collaborates with the ISS, provides facilities for microgravity research, development, and manufacturing. As more privately-owned shuttles sprout up, the demand for in-orbit production will increase, she said.
By the end of the decade, companies that produce space products say they will no longer need to travel solely through the ISS to get to space. The more privately-owned space shuttles, the greater opportunities for off-the-world factories could be recouped.
Nasa has its own zero-gravity laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, that can replicate some of the conditions on earth. It's expensive to build that kind of infrastructure.
Shortly after the launch of their currently stuck drug factory, Varda's co-founders spoke to CNBC about their ambitious plans for manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space.
Varda's CEO, Will Bruey, said the aim is to ship four capsules into space every six months, starting with the one currently held in orbit. It is paramount that one of those four missions succeed, Bruey said, and if not, we don't deserve to have a space company any more.