Will Research In Space Make Science Fiction Come True?

February 3, 2020

By Deborah Borfitz

February 3, 2020 | Orbital Transports is positioning itself as the purveyor of the services and supplies needed in an emerging space-based economy—an endeavor CEO David Hurst likens to the Great California Gold Rush when pickaxes, mules, and tents helped extend terrestrial civilization westward. The immediate goal is an online marketplace for everything one might need to execute a small satellite mission, he says, including life science companies looking to do disease modeling and conduct pharmaceutical and regenerative medicine research.

As a space logistics company, Orbital Transports is focused on getting payloads to their desired destination, says Hurst. The next step is satellite servicing and space-based transportation services (aka “moving things around in space”).

But the long-term vision is to develop the infrastructure to support a spacefaring society where the International Space Station (ISS) isn’t the only waypoint. That future “is coming more rapidly than most people realize,” Hurst says.

Starting with small satellites in low-Earth orbit—where most active satellites can be found—makes sense because they constitute a rapidly expanding market with potential widespread commercial, civil, government and military applications, Hurst explains. Modern-day prospectors are investing real dollars in developing the must-have resources for such missions, which range from project management and payload integration services to refueling stations and satellite buses for getting missions into orbit.

Interest in nanosatellites is especially high, a segment that includes lightweight CubeSats that can escape Earth relatively inexpensively. They’re about the size of a loaf of bread and are easy to manufacture with off-the-shelf components, says Hurst.

Although his background is in electrical engineering and computer science, Hurst says he considers himself an engineer. He spent 30 years in the IT industry and as a technology entrepreneur, but space has been his passion since he watched the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing as a boy. Seven years ago, he started exploring the new space industry and, in 2015, he founded Orbital Transports.

The company has been subsisting on Small Business Innovation Research grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and took some investor funding last year, he says. Among those expressing interest in its offerings are NASA officials and researchers; academic and industry scientists; Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM); BioServe Space Technologies, based at the University of Colorado Boulder; and NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).

Constellation of Partners

Room is limited on the ISS, so wait times for biotech researchers to get their experiments on station can be lengthy, says Hurst. NASA also has strict safety requirements and limited astronaut availability to manage experiments. The bigger issue for some scientists is that they want to do their research in orbits with higher-radiation environments than where the ISS typically travels.

Orbital Transport saw an opportunity to move this kind of research onto small satellites by integrating its autonomous bioreactor module with the thermally-protected payload return capsule of Terminal Velocity Aerospace and the hosted payload satellite bus system of Modularity Space providing power, communications and propulsion.

“Small satellites will typically burn up in the atmosphere at the end of the mission,” Hurst says, highlighting the solution’s appeal. “With a payload return capsule, we can recover the research materials intact.”

In addition to space logistics, Orbital Transports will also offer an “end-to-end turnkey service” whereby the company will design, build, and test spacecraft, as well as operate the mission and get the resulting data back to earth, says Hurst. “Our role is to operate as a general contractor, coordinating partners and connecting technologies together to make a successful mission.”

About 15 partnerships have been formalized and at least that many are in the offing, Hurst says. The five that have been publicly announced are launch aggregation providers Precious Payload and SpaceBridge Logistics; Benchmark Space Systems, which manufactures a propulsion system for nanosatellites; and CubeSat component manufacturers Pumpkin Space Systems and Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS).

The partners will serve as subcontractors and their technologies, products and services will be presented in a soon-to-launch online digital catalog, says Hurst. Among them, he notes, will be companies sending commercial payloads to the moon. The first such flight is expected in 2021 and focus on surveying and prospecting for water on the lunar south pole.

This envisioned ecosystem for small satellite missions—and larger missions down the road—isn’t an eCommerce website, at least initially, says Hurst. “Customers will come to the portal, look at products and then submit a request for a quote. That gives us an opportunity to… understand their requirements and help them through the process.”

Products that are “space flight heritage,” and have therefore been launched or successfully used in space before, will be flagged as such in the catalog, he adds. Orbital Transports itself has a space qualification program that will send products into orbit on a shared satellite bus later this year to earn the designation.

Earthly Benefits

For anyone looking to do research in space, implementation partners are crucial to making it happen and adapting experiments to a microgravity environment. Grants issued by the Tissue Chips in Space program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are given to researchers to do the science, not cover any of the associated costs, says Lucie Low, Ph.D., scientific program manager of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program, which includes the Tissue Chips in Space program.

Conducting research in space is difficult and expensive relative to working in an earth-based laboratory, so there needs to be solid rationale for making the trip, says Low. “Just because you can do something in space doesn’t mean you should.”

The NIH funds research in space where “microgravity gives us new ways to investigate old [clinical] problems here on earth,” Low says. “The focus is very much public health on the ground.”

Microgravity is effectively being used as a tool “to uncover new pathways, new metabolic activities and novel modes of action… and push the development of technologies for application back here on Earth,” she says. “We can also model a disease much faster.”

In the case of kidney stones, the Hippocratic oath forbids deliberately inducing them and modeling the disease is impossible until research determines how and when they form, continues Low. It can take decades for kidney stone disease to become clinically relevant.

A kidney-on-a-chip system developed at the University of Washington was flown to the ISS National Lab last May to learn more about how kidney stones develop “on a very sped-up basis,” Low says. This can’t be done in any living organism because the kidney proximal tubule can’t be isolated to get the cellular and molecular changes that occur.

It was the second time NIH-funded tissue chip experiments made the trip. A lung and bone marrow chip developed at the University of Pennsylvania to understand the body’s response to infection was among the other projects onboard.

Then and Now

NIH-funded space missions are nothing new. The NIH has a longstanding memorandum of understanding with NASA that goes back 30 years, says Low. In 1998, when astronaut John Glenn re-flew to space as a 77-year-old, he spent most of his time participating in investigations on the aging process.

Those early shuttle days gave rise to important advances in biomedical research, including the development of remote sensing and noninvasive ultrasound, Low says. Research carried out in space also resulted in technology now used for eye refractive surgery.

NASA and NIH have collaborated over the years on a handful of human and rodent missions looking at microgravity-induced muscle mass changes, Low says, and an investigator at the University of California, San Francisco has received NIH support to conduct experiments of immune aspects of stem cells in space.

“There has been a lot of interest in the biomedical research community to use microgravity as a tool to understand some fundamental mechanisms here on Earth,” Low says. The ISS National Lab has done an “outstanding” job publicizing that ongoing work over the past few years.

The NIH has several partners helping it make space more accessible and the biomedical community more familiar with opportunities at the ISS National Lab, says Low. The agency also wants to make it clear that astronaut health research is very much under NASA’s purview.

“Right now, people are exploring the options, looking at protein crystal growth, wearables, and devices and organ regeneration,” says Low. Techshot Inc, a commercial operator of microgravity research and manufacturing equipment, just announced that it had successfully printed a large volume of human heart cells aboard the ISS National Lab and transported them back to earth.

Frontiers Ahead

NASA is interested in exploring the use of microgravity to bioengineer large tissue constructs, Low says. “Maybe we’ll be able to be bring them down to earth [as tissue patches] for people who have had a myocardial infarction.” Another, even longer-term possibility is re-growing organs in space, she adds.

“There is a huge need for tissue constructs, whether for regenerative medicine, research, or basic reconstructive surgery,” says Low. “The problem with trying to create them here on earth is that they collapse under their own weight because of gravity. In space you can make much larger constructs that can support themselves.”

Getting a tissue construct built or bio-printed in space is only the first of multiple hurdles in making it beneficial to human health. “You also have to get it back to earth, create vascularization, get the right kind of cells in there… and get them implanted in people who have to overcome things like immunosuppression and immune rejection,” Low says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting to explore the opportunities.”

Implementation partners, like the research community, are in an exploratory phase, says Low, noting the growing number of service providers in the niche. The NCATS Tissue Chips in Space program has worked with a broad range of companies, including longstanding player BioServe Space Technologies that adapts tissue chips for deployment to space. It has also partnered with Space Tango, a relatively new company that done a “phenomenal” job adapting some very complex systems into a shoebox-sized payload container.

A future, spacefaring civilization portends both on-earth and off-earth opportunities for drug developers, researchers, and multiple government agencies, says Low. They may want to explore how to manufacture drugs with an exceptionally long shelf life that can go on deep space missions and not degrade or be damaged by radiation.

Perhaps much of the standard pharmacopeia, including ibuprofen or oral contraceptives, could be manufactured on-ship with the enabling technology translated into other beneficial on-earth uses, she muses. “Fifty years ago, the idea of transplanting organs from one human to another sounded like science fiction and now here we are.”

With deep space missions and the colonization of Mars will come an understanding of how humans respond to microgravity, long-term isolation and exposure to deep space radiation, says Low, and those insights will be applicable to understanding how people respond to extreme environments on earth. Technology developments originating in space, including biowearables and their diagnostic assays, are already making “Star Trek” technologies look a lot less fictitious than they once did.