[image-96]Plug and play is a concept the developers of NanoRacks took to heart and to space, with the design and use of their original modules. This led to other innovations as the company progressed. In recognition of their work, they have received the 2012 International Space Station (ISS) Innovation Award of the Year at the second annual ISS Research and Development Conference.
“The American Astronautical Society (AAS) International Space Station Innovation of the Year Award is awarded to NanoRacks for extrapolating the modular concept that the space station was built on down to the nanolabs,” said International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. “This enables the use of the same piece of hardware for experiments, from those done using parabolic flights to those operated aboard spacecraft in orbit to those launching to the microgravity platform of the space station. This cuts development costs for microgravity research significantly.”
The overall theme of the 2013 conference is Discoveries, Applications and Opportunities, making this honor for NanoRacks particularly appropriate. The company’s philosophy of a low-cost avenue for microgravity research made possible via standardized hardware and a focus on customer service has facilitated and inspired scientists working in venues ranging from grade school to academia to industry. During its first three years of business, NanoRacks sent 91 investigations to the space station, returned 10 to Earth and deployed one CubeSat—a new area of focus using tiny satellites that measure about 4 inches on all sides.
“Small sat[ellite] deployment from the space station is a perfect example of the importance of the commercial utilization of station,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO for NanoRacks. “We now have more than 50 small satellites under contract and are working closely with NASA and JAXA [Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency] to meet this demand.”
NanoRacks is the first recipient of this award, which the ISS Research and Development Conference will give out annually from this year forward. The conference is organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). “This award goes to the person, team or company that has demonstrated an outstanding innovation for using the space station to perform science,” said Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist Allyson Thorn.
“We accept this award as recognition of several very positive developments, but two stand out: the first is that NanoRacks has shown that indeed there is a market for utilization by a wide range of users, from government to researchers to educational organizations aboard a low-Earth orbiting platform,” said Manber, who accepted the award on behalf of the company. “But secondly, and equally importantly, the award highlights the close working relationship that has developed between NanoRacks, NASA and supporting organizations like AAS and CASIS. This is noteworthy since, in my opinion, the industry must first solve how NASA and private space companies work together to stimulate utilization in LEO [Low Earth Orbit] before venturing out beyond. So we are very proud for this industry acknowledgement.”
Users of NanoRacks are as varied as the ideas they can fit into the modular boxes, ranging from students participating in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP) to private businesses, entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers. Science disciplines enabled by these platforms also vary and can include biology, physics, chemistry and more. “Through our educational partner NCESSE we have flown [experiments from] 39 school districts. With Valley Christian we have flown 10 high schools,” said Manber. “We also have flown [experiments from] researchers doing stem cell and cancer research. NanoRacks is involved in a fascinating protein crystal growth project with strong biopharma implications, not to mention stimulating the small satellite community with our space station small satellite deployment program, and [the Department of Defense] with our external platform.”
NanoRacks’ pioneering hardware makes it possible for users to engage in affordable and efficient research aboard the space station. The company, founded in 2009, began with the NanoRack modular design, which provides power and data transfer via a standardized facility housing that contains the investigations. These modules then fit neatly into a set of research racks aboard the space station. Users work in coordination with NanoRacks to adapt their experiment concepts to the already-approved modular design, allowing for a proficient path to microgravity research.
“We treat space as just another place to do business,” said Manber. “We are driven to provide quality services at a reasonable price. We do not seek to provide cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind hardware if off-the-shelf, lower cost research facilities can meet 90 percent of the needs of the research community.”
The original innovation of the NanoRacks module was followed by the introduction of MixStix hardware, which allowed for biological experiments without the need for power—astronauts “snap” the MixStix to activate the investigations in orbit. Other space station NanoRacks facilities that researchers can use include two microscopes, a microplate reader and a centrifuge. The company also helps users with CubeSat design and coordination for use of the Japanese Experiment Module Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD). There are even plans in the works for NanoRacks to develop and manufacture their own CubeSat deployers to mount aboard the space station.
“Looking forward, our business model will allow us to offer customers, whether governments or organizations or companies, the lowest costs as we move beyond LEO,” said Manber. “NanoRacks and XO Markets [the holding company that owns NanoRacks] expect to be part of the solution by providing lower costs to the taxpayers without reducing one bit our ambitions in space exploration.”
Operating on a set of four guiding principles—standardized research hardware, miniaturization of hardware, open sourced facilities and customer satisfaction—it is easy to see why NanoRacks was nominated for and awarded this honor. With the motto of “Space 4 Everyone,” this company plans to continue to blaze a trail for research aboard today’s space station and the microgravity platforms of tomorrow.