HOUSTON — Space manufacturing, a field whose promise has gone unrealized for decades, is now offering new opportunities thanks to the use of the International Space Station and reduced space access costs, some experts believe.
The best near-term opportunity to demonstrate the ability of space manufacturing to produce products of value on Earth, according to a panel at the SpaceCom Expo here Dec. 6, may come from experiments flying to the station in the next year to test the production of high-quality optical fibers.
“The opportunities for in-space manufacturing have never been better,” said Lynn Harper of the Space Portal Office at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Large-scale manufacturing could be tested and perfected on the ISS, and then implemented in the many commercial carriers that are starting to emerge.”
Manufacturing in space, taking advantage of its microgravity or vacuum conditions, has long been proposed as a key space industry, but has failed to materialize. Harper noted that, in 1973, a General Electric executive testified before Congress that his company had identified space manufacturing applications that could grow to a $2 billion a year market in the 1980s. Those applications did not emerge, and Harper said that the infrequent and expensive ...