For decades, space has captured imaginations, prompting many to wonder what's possible. For industry, the fixation on space has resulted in numerous innovations, many of which have become a part of most people’s daily lives. However, the reality is, when analyzing space based innovations, industry has barely scratched the surface. The potential of manufacturing within space could result in truly meaning solutions to the many challenges facing earth today.This is where Axiom Space, a privately funded space station manufacturer and orbital services provider, is hoping to make a significant difference. Axiom is currently building the world’s first commercial space station to serve as a home to human-tended microgravity research, product development and in-space manufacturing, as well as critical space-environment materials testing.
“Our main goal is to make the microgravity environment more accessible and cost-efficient to unlock the potential it holds for innovation and discovery that simply can’t be done on Earth. Space-driven developments in every sector have immensely improved life back on earth, but the chance to be a part of these advancements has been limited for private citizens and companies,” Christian Maender, Axiom’s director of in-space manufacturing and research, tells IndustryWeek.
As part of Axiom’s roadmap to create massive opportunity to innovate in space, the company is gearing up for its first (and the first-ever) private mission to the International Space Station, Ax-1, in January 2022, where its crew of trained private astronauts will conduct extensive research. Concurrently, Axiom is working to send its first privately developed space station modules to the ISS, where they will attach as part of a contract the company has with NASA before later separating to operate independently and serve as grounds for innovation among countless industries. Through Axiom’s space missions and module plans, the group is making it possible for manufacturing companies and entrepreneurs to develop new products and markets in low Earth orbit.
According to Maender, a litany of physical processes often taken for granted within Earth’s gravity do not occur in the state of permanent free-fall experienced on orbit. “When free of gravity-driven, earthly constraints, like sedimentation, buoyancy, convection, and hydrostatic pressure, we can manipulate materials and biology in new ways leading to manufacturing techniques yielding innovative new products. For example, containerless processing is possible in microgravity, creating an ultrapure environment for manufacturing or study of new materials,” he says. “Crystallization fundamentally changes in microgravity, opening opportunity to create materials with optimized physical properties. All of this combines to offer opportunities for breakthrough product development.”
Work on the ISS has already demonstrated the microgravity environment is ideal for manufacturing superior fiber optics, bio-printing of living tissues, manufacture of synthetic retinal implants and growth of ultrapure protein crystals supporting drug discovery. “These early products, along with translational research performed on the ISS, are proof that development of new metal alloys, ceramics, semi-conductors, and stem cell therapies are all possible new products that can be made in space and brought back to Earth, contributing to progress in a wide variety of areas,” says Maender.
It’s hard to overstate the potential microgravity has for a variety of users across many industries, most of which otherwise have no obvious connection to space, adds Maender. “Developing manufacturing tools and processes for space often require miniaturization, ruggedization, automation and remote operation of components and processes that will have direct tieback to innovation, modernization and cost-savings in terrestrial manufacturing,” he says. “The proof-of-concept work done in space often yields new discoveries directly applicable to improving manufacturing capability on earth. Space-based applications within manufacturing companies inevitably attract top new talent to traditional industrial sectors. New talent often begets new innovation across sectors.”