July 22, 2013
Some early entrepreneurs are starting to see returns on their investments in International Space Station (ISS) business, as the $100 billion orbiting laboratory continues a slow turn away from assembly operations to utilization.
Some 28% of U.S. rack space on the station remains unused, NASA officials say. The station still has not reached its full capacity, in part because worries about how long it will remain in orbit and what happens to intellectual property generated there give pause to some potential users.
Those concerns have not stopped Nanoracks LLC, a Houston-based startup that built a low-cost small-payload accommodation based on the cubesat standard and persuaded NASA to install it on the ISS three years ago.
Since then the company has expanded on that model to offer space on several internal and external ISS facilities, and has plans for another significant addition to its revenue stream.
The work won Nanoracks the first American Astronautical Society ISS innovation award at the organization's space station research and development conference here last week. But more importantly, the company is moving ahead with a new station app that promises a significant boost in its cash flow—commercial cubesat launches from a multi-unit dispenser of its own design (see photo inset).
“After we became the first company to coordinate a small satellite deployment from station, we were very very surprised by the market response,” says Jeff Manber, Nanoracks founder and managing director. “It became clear that people are enamored for using the ISS for a variety of reasons—frequent access, and the fact that it's available.”
Like the first satellite it launched—a Vietnamese cubesat—Nanoracks will use the Japanese Kibo module's airlock, exposed facility and robotic arm to launch multiple cubesats with the new dispenser scheduled to reach the station by the end of the year.