If You Build It from Low Earth Orbit, They Will Come
published during a waxing crescent moon.
05/03/2017

The first to settle space will be the builders and miners. NASA provided the blueprints to get there and that will always be NASA’s role: to press ever outward. Here is how humans go to Phobos. Here is how humans live above the Venusian clouds. But astronauts are not settlers—it’s right there in the name. Astronaut: star traveler. If we’re doing things correctly, they should ever remain in motion.

Builders and miners will be the first to truly settle because we need infrastructure and the resources to make human expansion sustainable. There was no British Empire before the Virginia Company established Jamestown. The “wild west” became an ordered economic engine only after Leland Stanford drove the last spike completing the transcontinental railroad. We need material and money, and the first place to achieve those ends will be in a commercialized low Earth orbit (LEO).

We even know what it looks like. Almost fifty years, 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a future in space grounded in physics and an LEO characterized not by the fantastic, but by the prosaic. Dr. Floyd flies Pan Am to a space station over Earth and stays at an orbital Hilton. There is a Howard Johnson restaurant there, and Bell telephone booths. Such a future is not only technically doable but is emotionally accessible– where the future as envisioned by Star Trek can be only aspirational. Utopia Planitia is a terrible place to build a starship. Low Earth orbit is a great place for a Hilton.

We are not so far off from that future, and already, pioneers in the commercialization of LEO are launching hardware to make it happen. One such company is Made in Space, a California-based, off-world manufacturing firm that has deployed 3D printers to the International Space Station (ISS). “Manufacturing in space will be the anchor tenant for the commercial LEO economy,” says Andrew Rush, the president of the company. He tells NOW.SPACE that where today his company makes objects from orbit for use in space, the next step will be producing material from orbit for use on Earth.

“The demand that will be created by manufacturing things in space, starting with things like an optical fiber manufacturing project we will initially deploy this year—that will grow and expand and really be the game changer and sustainable industry that commercial space stations and robotics will be built around. It will pay the rent on those future platforms.”

Low Earth orbit is a great place for a Hilton.

Today, the company’s 3D printers—essentially proto-replicators as seen on Star Trek—produce on the International Space Station everything from microgravity wrenches to parts for the station’s oxygen systems and radios. (Using 3D printing, says Rush “we can fix things in real-time in a much more resilient and safe manner than duct taping a whole bunch of stuff together to do makeshift repairs.“) The printer is used additionally to test the sorts of things colonists might need in the future, such as medical supplies.

The next phase of the company’s ambitions involves the manufacturing of an exotic optical fiber called ZBLAN, which has a significantly lower signal loss and a wider transition window than traditionally-built fiber. NASA research has shown that the revolutionary fiber is far better suited to manufacture in microgravity, as gravity introduces imperfections. “We are launching a pilot factory to station this year to manufacture fiber for initial characterization for customers,” says Rush, “and will quickly step up to larger production facilities, initially on the International Space Station but one day on commercial facilities. Then we’ll bring the fiber back [to Earth]. It’s our ambition to create first billion dollar manufacturing business in space.”

low earth orbit

The Axiom Station will provide continuity to the growing family of space-faring nations. Credit: Axiom Space

Though the International Space Station has been the enabler of a commercialized LEO, it won’t be there forever. It wasn’t long ago that serious plans called for its decommissioning in 2020. Today, plans keep it operational through at least 2024. At some point, however, neither NASA nor the wider international community will be interested in maintaining the station. NASA has floated plans to hand over ISS to a business consortium that would use it in much the same way a company might lease office space on Earth. As commercial LEO grows in sophistication, however, orbital industries will face the same problems as their terrestrial counterparts. Why rent a building tailored to meet some other company’s needs when you can build your own facility to meet your needs? The ISS was built as a grand science experiment on human lab rats. It was never envisioned as a factory. Is it easier for industry to adapt the station, or build another?

Space stations can be manufactured too. One company moving forward with this is Axiom Space, which intends to build ISS’s “international, privately-owned successor.” This sounds far off, but the company’s timeline has it launching the first module of such a station in 2020, with the potential to operate as an independent station in either 2024 or 2028 (coinciding with the possible de-orbit of the ISS). This means within a decade, there might be at least one private factory in orbit. It means also a future with inexpensive, routine rocket launches for station maintenance and operation.

The landmark reuse of a SpaceX rocket several weeks ago greatly increases the likelihood of this sustainable off-world future, says Dale Skran, the executive vice president of the National Space Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group. “History may view the first successful re-use of a Falcon 9 first stage as the true dawn of the ‘age of space,’ in which humanity moved outwards from Earth, not to visit, but to stay,” he tells NOW.SPACE.

low earth orbit

A wrench 3D printed from the International Space Station. Credit: Made in Space

The development of low Earth orbit means easier launches for harder technologies. Put a small, dense satellite on top of a rocket and manufacture its more delicate and perhaps unwieldy hardware from orbit. Launch the satellite and assemble it in space. (The assembly alone could be a thriving sector of the industry.) “There will be great value to fitting space projects into ‘chunks’ that can be cheaply and rapidly lofted by available re-usable vehicles,” says Skran. “Increased usage of standard-sized payloads will lead to higher flight rates and still lower costs. There is an analogy to the fashion in which standard shipping containers have dramatically lowered the cost of shipping freight on the Earth.”

The raw materials for LEO manufacturing need not even come from Earth. There is a plausible future in which a lunar mining company hauls, say, five tons of nickel to LEO to feed factory equipment. (Made In Space hardware is origin agnostic.) The goods produced from wholly extraterrestrial material will initially be targeted for sale and use on Earth, but there will one day be a space-based economy separate from the economies of our home planet.

It all sounds so fantastic, so preposterous, so futuristic, but ten years ago we were still flying the space shuttle for what averages to about $1.5 billion per launch. Today we are landing rockets vertically on barges in the ocean, refurbishing them, and launching them yet again. That is far more preposterous a notion than designer space stations that 3D print satellite parts from orbit. Ten years from now? If there is indeed money to be made in space—if Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Andrew Rush, and others are even half successful in their ambitions—we might look back on 2017 in astonishment at how primitive it all was. We might look back from an orbital Hilton.