The Payoff For Industry

Dec. 21, 2004
Process and product research will benefit from the launch of the International Space Station.

All research to be conducted aboard the International Space Station in one way or another will help industry. But two areas stand out:

  • Improving industrial processes. Microgravity experiments in combustion science, for example, could lead to reduction of pollution, improvement in home heating, new means of powering automobiles, and production of synthetic materials. Similarly, experiments in fluid behavior could increase the efficiency of electric powerplants and enable construction of buildings more resistant to earthquakes. And research in materials science could foreshadow better-designed products on earth, ranging, NASA suggests, "from contact lenses to car engines."
  • Product development. A continuously operating and accessible space laboratory eventually will trigger a boom in space-based entrepreneurship, NASA predicts. For example, research in gravitational biology and ecology could enable agricultural firms to grow hardier crops on "space farms." The ability to produce in microgravity and a vacuum could enable the electronics industry to introduce a new generation of semiconductors. Already, the pharmaceutical industry is testing new drugs developed as the result of three-dimensional structural analysis of protein crystals grown in space. Yet extensive manufacturing in space isn't likely, at least initially, because of the forbidding cost of transporting materials. "For now," says Mark Uhran, NASA's director of space utilization and product development, "the knowledge to be gained through research in space is far more important to companies than actual space manufacturing." But that could change. Boeing Co., ISS' prime contractor, is studying "the crossover points" at which production of such products as semiconductors and metallurgical castings in space becomes economical.
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