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NASA Selects Proposals for In-Space Development of Projects Including Optical Fibers and Stem Cells and a Plan to Enable a Low Earth Orbit Economy

Removing the force of gravity from development processes can lead to products that are higher quality, have fewer defects, and are more effective than when developed on Earth. Companies are demonstrating these improved results can be achieved in the unique microgravity environment on the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits about 250 miles above the planet. The research opportunities that have demonstrated the unique market value of in-space manufacturing, technology advancement and drug development have come through NASA’s investment in dedicating transportation and research time for ISS National Lab investigations. Now NASA is providing seed money for seven proposals to enable enterprising companies to mature their concepts and stimulate demand to develop their future markets. The awards are a key element of NASA’s five-point plan to enable development of a robust economy in low-Earth orbit (LEO) in which NASA will become one of many customers.

NASA made the awards to help the selected companies raise the technological readiness level of their products and move them to market, to propel U.S. industry toward the development of a sustainable, scalable, and profitable non-NASA demand for services and products in low-Earth orbit.

NASA selected seven proposals submitted in response to the Research Opportunities for ISS Utilization NASA Research Announcement (NRA) seeking in-space manufacturing and regenerative medicine flight demonstrations:

  • Universal Glass Optics Manufacturing Module
  • Thin Metal-Coated Optical Fiber Manufacturing
  • Glass Alloy Manufacturing Machine
  • Semiconductor Chip Facility
  • Production of Stem Cells for Personalized Medicine Applications
  • Protein-based Retinal Implant Manufacturing
  • Regenerative Medicine Laboratory

In addition, NASA selected an applied research proposal submitted in response to the agency’s call to identify opportunities that could broadly foster the long-term growth of new and emerging markets for commercial activities in low-Earth orbit:

  • Integrated Action Plan for Addressing Barriers to Entry of LEO Market

The selected proposals are from five companies with a total award value of up to $23 million through fiscal year 2023, depending on milestones achieved.

Apsidal of Los Angeles is developing a Universal Glass Optics Manufacturing Module capable of processing various types of complex glass in space from which fibers, magnetic fibers, super-continuum sources, capillary optics and adiabatic tapers can be drawn. One of their key innovations is a custom Laser Doppler Sensor for real-time in-situ analysis and feedback control of the manufacturing process. Additionally, this technology is Artificial Intelligence (AI) assisted to be adaptive to optimize production in a low-Earth orbit environment. The microgravity environment of space is needed because convection and sedimentation in development on Earth causes separation of complex glass elements creating crystallization, thus creating defects which reduce performance. Market areas for products from this module include specialty fibers for communications, medical diagnostics, remote sensing, X-ray optics, and laser processing.

DSTAR Communications of Woodland Hills, California, has established a team to create an external material processing platform on the International Space Station with autonomous, high throughput manufacturing capability. Markets for products manufactured by this facility include infrared optical fibers in medical and defense applications and ultralight solar arrays for commercial and military space platforms. The unique microgravity environment of space eliminates convection and sedimentation that occur on Earth, enabling the manufacture of premium quality materials and products with fewer defects and improved performance. In addition, the vacuum of space enables vacuum deposition in the same facility for improved reliability and improved functionality of the resulting products. The DSTAR Communications team includes partners FOMS of San Diego, California, Visioneering Space of Boise, Idaho, and Lunar Resources of Houston.

Made In Space, Inc., of Jacksonville, Florida, is selected for two proposals focused on in-space manufacturing:

  • Developing a Glass Alloy Manufacturing Machine (GAMMA), an experimental system designed to investigate how glass alloys form without the effects of gravity-induced flaws. The microgravity environment of space is expected to enable much higher quality glass products by eliminating the Earth-based impacts of convection, sedimentation, and solute buildup, which lead to nucleation, or crystal-forming sites in the materials. This system could improve processes for commercial product development. Product applications include optical fiber, lenses, and optical devices across several market segments including telecommunications, sensors and laser technology industries.
  • Developing an autonomous, high throughput manufacturing capability for production of high quality, lower cost semiconductor chips at a rapid rate. Terrestrial semiconductor chip production suffers from the impacts of convection and sedimentation in the manufacturing process. Fabricating in microgravity is expected to reduce the number of gravity-induced defects, resulting in more usable chips per wafer. Market applications include semiconductor supply chains for telecommunications and energy industries. 

Space Tango of Lexington, Kentucky, and its partners are selected for three proposals focused on regenerative medicine.

  • Space Tango and its partner Cedars-Sinai of Los Angeles are developing pilot-scale systems for the production in space of large batches of stem cells to be used in personalized medical treatment for a variety of diseases. The development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) for commercial personalized medicine applications is done in space because the work to date on the space station demonstrates stem cells retain their “stemness” for longer durations in microgravity, allowing a delay of differentiation that has the potential to enable larger batches of cells to be produced. The pilot-scale systems, built for the space station to serve as basis for future commercial manufacturing systems, will incorporate regulatory strategies to support FDA clinical trial production of personalized medicine stem cell therapies on the space station. This includes Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) conditions, required for production of stem cell therapies for human use in patients. 
  • Space Tango and its partner LambdaVision of Farmington, Connecticut, are developing a system to manufacture protein-based retinal implants, or artificial retinas, in microgravity. The market for this work is millions of patients suffering retinal degenerative diseases, including retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness for adults over 55 years old. This effort builds on a validation flight completed in late 2018 that demonstrated the proof of concept for generating multilayered protein-based thin films in space using a miniaturized layer-by-layer manufacturing device. This project will further mature the manufacturing system, producing protein-based artificial retinas in space that would be returned to Earth for surgical implant to restore sight for patients suffering from degenerative retinal diseases. This work will establish the necessary regulatory requirements for producing biomedical products in space, including Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP). The microgravity environment of space hinders convection and sedimentation in the manufacturing process, enabling more uniform layers, improved stability and higher quality than can be produced on Earth. 
  • Space Tango and its partners at UC San Diego/Sanford Consortium in La Jolla, California, are working to establish a new on-orbit biomedical sector for stem cell advancement, with a fully operational self-sustaining orbital laboratory anticipated by 2025. The team is working to refine current hardware capabilities and process flow, extending the capabilities of ground-based laboratories with regular access to the space station via secured flight opportunities. Stem cells differentiate into tissue specific progenitors that can be used in microgravity to better understand aging and immune dysfunction, providing an opportunity to accelerate advances in regenerative medicine and the development of potential new therapeutic approaches. The target market for this orbital laboratory is a new approach to stem cell translational medicine.

Bryce Space and Technology of Alexandria, Virginia, will develop an action plan to address real and perceived barriers to growth of the low-Earth orbit economy. Bryce will characterize and catalogue real and perceived barriers for emerging commercial low-Earth orbit market areas, evaluating each barrier for its effect on potential revenue generation, planned NASA missions, and overall marketplace development. Based on its evaluation, the company will identify the highest-priority barriers and identify actions NASA can take to help overcome market barriers with a time-phased approach for implementation. Bryce will quantify the potential impact of those actions with an estimate of future demand that reflects market dynamics as they exist today, and an estimate of future demand in low-Earth orbit that reflects implementation of recommended actions to overcome barriers to market growth.