6 NewSpace Startups Enabling Future Research
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In quite a few of the bleaker science fiction worlds, the future is fraught with all sorts of sinister dangers, from invading aliens to varying apocalyptic visions of Easy Rider in the Outback. One of the more common villains is the Company or the Corporation—an all-powerful conglomerate that’s usually up to no good in pursuit of the bottom line, like developing a virus that turns human into zombies. (That technology has already been developed; it’s called a smartphone.) We subscribe to a more optimistic, Star Trek-meets-Who-Wants-to-be-a-Millionaire philosophy of the future, with moguls like Elon Musk or Richard Branson serving as benevolent benefactors while still making a buck in the process. Many of the so-called NewSpace startups talk about democratizing space, which roughly translates into everyone in the galaxy should be allowed to make a buck while trading shares of the future that look something like this:
We’ve covered quite a few of these astropreneurs, as some have dubbed them. There are companies building rockets or developing constellations of satellites. Others want to mine asteroids or mine tourist dollars. In this round we want to talk about six NewSpace startups that are pursuing different niches. Some serve as a sort of middle man between the International Space Station and earth-bound researchers. These services often involve deploying experiments, especially in micro-gravity conditions. Apparently, everyone is interested in testing how different stuff works when there’s less gravity. (Seems like a missed opportunity for Trojan condoms here.) Different NewSpace startups are pursuing more ambitious projects, such as re-purposing rockets into future space stations or using 3D technology to “print” satellites directly in outer space. That’s something that not even Weyland Industries could do.
Building it in Space
Texas-based NanoRacks is one of those NewSpace startups that is rapidly evolving its business. The eight-year-old company has collected $5 million in disclosed funding. More importantly, perhaps, is that it is in possession of a Space Act Agreement from NASA that allows it to do business on the ISS National Laboratory. There are fewer than a half-dozen companies that can boast those privileges. The company says it has deployed more than 350 payloads to the ISS, with price points starting at $15,000 and going up to $100,000 for sophisticated hardware experiments (see video below). The company also facilitates the launch of small satellites called CubeSats.
The startup has begun to move in larger orbits outside the ISS. It is under contract to NASA with several other companies to develop deep-space habitats. The $65 million project is working on various strategies for creating small space stations, such as repurposing spent rocket stages directly in orbit rather than launching from Earth. These recycled space habitats are part of an effort to cut costs while finding creative ways to repurpose the growing collection of space junk. Just think what these guys could do for the people on Hoarders.
Made in Space
Founded in 2010, Made in Space is another NewSpace startup that is rapidly expanding its business model. It has never taken any venture funding, according to TechCrunch, and still turns a profit. Its 40 full-time employees are based at the NASA Ames Research Center. The company deployed the first 3D printer to the ISS in 2014 and counts Lowes as one of its major corporate partners. You can imagine that when isht breaks in space, you can’t just go to your neighborhood hardware store (partly because Lowes has put them all out of business). This year MIS was set to test whether a better optical fiber could be created in micro-gravity conditions.
Now, as TechCrunch reports, the NewSpace startup is part of a program to build a factory in outer space. Check out the video above. Autonomous robots would operate the Archinaut system, which could produce and build things like satellites or even a spacecraft while in orbit.
Doing Research in Space
Space Tango out of Lexington, Kentucky, is another NewSpace startup that has the inside track with NASA through the same agreement for access to the ISS as NanoRack. Those privileges include a free ride to the space station on any SpaceX rocket, according to Inc. The company is a commercial spinoff of nonprofit Kentucky Space. Space Tango supports research in micro-gravity, launching its first lab to space station this year.
Inc. reports that the company charges between $20,000 and $40,000 for more complicated biological experiments. It also offers less expensive services in exchange for a 1 percent cut of the intellectual property. As of last year, it had about 50 customers signed up. What kind of experiments? In the past, parent company Kentucky Space collaborated with Tufts University to observe how flatworms regenerate in space. Probably not as exciting as gecko sex in space.
A Swiss-Israeli company, SpacePharma took in an undisclosed Series A in January 2015. Geek Time reported that one of SpacePharma’s primary investors, State of Mind Ventures, usually ponies up about $1 to $2 million per investment. The company has also gotten several grants through the Space Florida-Israel Innovation Partnership Program. Yes, we are refraining ourselves from indulging in a tasteless Jewish retiree joke here.
This NewSpace startup is doing a similar dance to Space Tango, but taking the act on the road. Or, in this case, on a small satellite that doubles as an autonomous laboratory for micro-gravity experiments. Its mGnify lab aboard the DIDO nanosatellite finally launched earlier in 2017 after more than a year of delays, switching from a SpaceX rocket to catch a ride on a spacecraft from India. The company notes that its orbiting lab cuts through the government red tape required to get onto the ISS, especially in the case when a biological experiment goes wrong and turns the astronauts into zombies. Even the best PR people would have a hard time turning that frown upside down.
Launching Next-Generation Space Stations
If you build it, they will come. That’s what Houston-based Axiom Space hopes, as it builds what it calls the first commercial space station. The NewSpace startup only came online last year with $3 million in Seed funding. That doesn’t sound like enough money to build the next-generation ISS, but an article on Planetary Society profiling Axiom Space says the company is hoping to close a bigger Series A this year. The company also has experience on its side, with a guy named Mike Suffredini at the helm. Suffredini managed the ISS program for a decade. Plus, Axiom Space already has a cool 3D picture of its proposed station:
Axiom Space is also developing a diverse portfolio of services, including space tourism, manufacturing in orbit and micro-gravity lab support. The Planetary Society reported that Axiom’s tourism model is much different than Virgin Galactic, for example, which charges $250,000 for a few minutes of weightlessness; Axiom will offer weeklong excursions—for tens of millions of dollars.
Update 03/01/2021: We profiled Axiom in a piece titled Axiom: From Space Tourism to Commercial Space Station.
We’ll keep the light on for you. Oh, wrong company. Bigelow Aerospace, based in Las Vegas, was founded by Robert Bigelow, who owns Budget Suites of America. Mr. Bigelow has reportedly spent $350 million of his own fortune to fund Bigelow Aerospace. Apparently, the hotel chain was just a warm up for building budget rooms in outer space. The NewSpace startup has developed an inflatable “room”—the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)—that has been attached to the ISS since last year for testing. So far, it has held up to the rigors of space flight, including bits of space debris. Tests are ongoing to determine how reliable BEAM will be against space radiation. Check out the module’s schematics below.
Bigelow is now developing a larger standalone module—basically, a small space station—called B330 for the 330 cubic meters of interior space. It is also inflatable, launching at one-third of its eventual size. Mr. Bigelow is one of those outsize CEO personalities in the mold of an Elon Musk. While Musk fears that AI may one day enslave humanity, Mr. Bigelow has asserted his belief in ET and UFOs and states emphatically that aliens visit earth and live among us. If you’ve read our article on the Mandela Effect and D-Wave, believing that aliens are here shouldn’t be that much a stretch. The Truth is out there—if you have enough money to find it.
We’ve learned quite a bit about the constellation of companies competing in the NewSpace Race over the last month or so. It’s obvious that the industry remains a high-risk venture. Even a company like SpaceX is only a rocket failure away from a quarter-billion-dollar loss in any given year. Investors are understandably skittish when there’s a possibility to watch their investment literally go up in smoke. The number of deals, so far this year, have been up but actual dollar amounts are down, according to data firm CB Insights. That tells us excitement about the final frontier is still high and with more successes like we’ve seen this year in areas like rocket technology, perhaps investments will soon be out of this world.