One exciting prospect in humanity’s engagement with space is in-space manufacturing. Today, it is largely conceptual. There are no factories in space. Many people, however, are thinking about what benefits off-Earth environments hold for manufacturing purposes. Erik Kulu, a systems engineer with a passion for space, manages a website called Factories in Space. It is a repository of information on in-space manufacturing that includes lists of relevant companies. We spoke to Erik to learn more about the promises of in-space manufacturing.
Where did the idea come from to start your website, Factories in Space?
In 2016, Made in Space announced a plan to demonstrate production of ZBLAN optical fiber on the International Space Station. It seemed that space fiber could be the first profitable product manufactured in microgravity. I thought it could be the start of something very impactful. One could notice that in-space manufacturing was starting to reemerge after the early Space Shuttle and Space Station Freedom days.
Asteroid mining and space manufacturing had been on my mind, but these two enterprises are hindered by a major chicken-and-egg problem. Large initial funding is required for both, and even if one could get operations up and running, customers would take a long time to come. The practical path was missing. I realized the solution is to send raw materials from Earth, use emerging transport and services on the ISS to manufacture materials that cannot be made on Earth, and send finished products back to Earth where the markets already exist. Soon after that, orbital factories could become the first commercial customers for new space stations, space utilities, spaceships, and asteroid resources. The in-space economy would take off.
When researching ZBLAN in detail, it became clear that accessible sources were limited. More importantly, a lot of hype was being repeated in the industry with little basis in facts. The jury is still out on ZBLAN’s prospects. For me, the question became: If not fiber, then what? Many studies and books listed other promising products for microgravity manufacturing, but most of them were decades old and the markets and applications were not obvious. I figured that the first microgravity killer app might not be a component for the space industry. To find it, we need to increase awareness to include many new industries and sciences.
Factories in Space was created to find or inspire the first profitable product that can be made only in orbit. Moreover, it is intended to show that an aspiring in-space manufacturing startup can take advantage of existing orbital platforms and transport services. By not having to develop all the steps on their own to be able to start, such startups can focus on demonstrating technology and economics. They only need to become vertically integrated later, if they wish.
Why are you interested in in-space manufacturing?
I believe in-space manufacturing will be the biggest space industry in the future. Specifically, I mean creating materials and products in microgravity that cannot be made on Earth. It would also be a new economic driver for spaceflight, in addition to research and tourism. If asteroid mining will be a $1 trillion business, then space manufacturing will be a $10 trillion business thanks to resources transformed into products with extra value.
Advances in materials science have made a large part of our modern world possible. A key difference is that many materials processing methods like mixing and growing are gravity-dependent. They work differently when free falling in orbit. We do not even know what might be possible or much easier. Perhaps room-temperature superconductors need to be created in space factories or perhaps quantum computers work considerably better when free from most environmental disturbances.
On Earth, those physical processes require large amounts of energy and resources while being contaminating. Pollution is different in space because there is arguably no nature and almost certainly no life to harm. Toxic gases, leftover chemicals, and radioactive materials on Earth can be common on asteroids or other planets. Context matters here, because they are harmful only in our ecosystem. Add unlimited solar power or safe nuclear energy and this is one reason why I, Gerard O’Neill, Jeff Bezos, and many others would prefer to move heavy industries to space.
How does your interest in in-space manufacturing relate to your other professional experience?
In-space manufacturing at this early stage is a mixture of space systems and space robotics. There is notable overlap with satellites in terms of engineering, regulations, and project management. Making things in orbit means developing automated systems that can produce the desired materials or products.
As a systems engineer, creating new technologies is the most exciting part. It’s especially exciting to push the boundaries of what is possible. No one has built factories in space yet, but I think they will become common in the late 2030s. I also studied physics at university, not aerospace engineering, which helps to understand microgravity processes and the potential for new materials. An experimental mindset has stayed with me. This is vital for the nascent in-space manufacturing field, where no straightforward technologies or business models exist yet.