An industrial space race

Catherine Rodd May 17 1982

An industrial space race

Catherine Rodd May 17 1982

An industrial space race


Catherine Rodd

Huddled in corporate research laboratories worldwide sit groups of visionaries plotting a course toward the ultimate frontier. They seek to commercialize space, harnessing its gravity-free environment to make a variety of lucrative new products—from faster semiconductors to a potential cure for diabetes. And they base their efforts not on wild imaginings but on a decade’s worth of research by international space agencies into the power of weightless production. Space promises release from such familiar problems as sedimentation. Earthbound scientists inevitably find that impurities linger in new compounds because gravity dictates imperfect bonding.

Now, international competition is accelerating as the space agencies prepare to thrust industry’s projects into orbit. Through the European Space Agency, continental entrepreneurs are hoping to break the American monopoly on space flights with the Ariane rocket. West

Germany is luring interested companies with tax breaks, and, in Japan, tests on the purification of metals and semiconductors are already being lofted on sounding rockets financed by the Japanese Space Development Agency.

For its part, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) promises to launch the first extraterrestrial factories within five years. Its grand design rests on the space shuttle, specially constructed to carry small containers of experiments—at corporate expense. Even before the returnable craft was finished, NASA was hustling business prospects eager to put $500 down payments on spots in Columbia’s hold (an additional $2,200 would send an entire package into space). The fifth shuttle flight, in November, will house the first of these corporate “getaway specials,” and at least 500 companies are planning their own packages. Next month’s shuttle flight will include the final tests of the equipment used in purifying pharma-

ceuticals. Predicts Ronald Weiss, a space consultant in St. Louis, Mo.: “We will likely see products of space industrialization by the end of the decade.” The companies involved are hoping the results will parlay their investments into monumental profits. According to a 1979 study by Science Ap-

plications Inc., materials processing in space should yield gross revenues of $80 billion by 2010. Says Larry Fosbinder, research engineer with John Deere and Co. in Moline, 111.: “We think it makes good business sense.”

Quick to agree are McDonnell Douglas and its partner, the Ortho division of Johnson and Johnson. They plan to utilize a purification technique called electrophoresis to make a new line of drugs. Experiments in late June will attempt to extract pure insulin-producing beta cells from pulverized animal pancreases—a method impossible on Earth. The pure beta cell could then be returned to Earth, reproduced through genetic engineering and eventually used as a one-shot cure for diabetes. While McDonnell Douglas cautions that a marketable drug won’t be ready before 1990, the company has invested more than $2 million in the project.

It is not only corporate giants that are looking to space. Microgravity Associates Ltd. of Miami, Fla., contends that zero gravity creates ideal conditions for making the new gallium arsenide crystal so prized by the computer industry. Without contamination and sedimentation, a perfect crystal, touted as being nine times faster and six times more efficient than the existing silicon chip, can be formed. But the American company faces stiff competition from the Japanese, who are testing gallium arsenide crystals in their rockets.

Space also promises to be a vast laboratory for the further probing of weightlessness. GTI Corporation of San Diego, Calif., is currently developing a multicompartmentalized furnace to be launched by the mid-1980s. Orbiting Earth, the furnace will carry out metallurgical experiments for industry and universities alike. “It can lead to new products, which will bring new tax payments, which will mean more investment in research,” explains GTl’s financial vice-president, Ronald Lust.

A potential customer for GTl’s furnace might be the tractor company John Deere. While keeping its manufacturing strictly terrestrial, it has been using NASA’s facilities to enhance its understanding of cast iron. By examining the way magnesium is absorbed into cast iron in zero gravity, Deere engineers hope to discover why only 20 per cent is used. Learning to utilize 100 per cent will save the company millions. Notes Fosbinder: “We can adapt space technology to the way we do business on Earth.”

Such companies as Deere and McDonnell Douglas, which see themselves in the forefront of the new space race, are prepared to invest millions of dollars. But because they expect government to absorb its share of the financial burden, it will likely be cost that determines the

future of industry in space. Such proponents as Toronto’s Morrie Schneiderman, president of Wester’ Shore R&D, maintain that the American government’s budget cuts are jeopardizing future developments. “One shuttle flight costs the same as two B-l bombers or three M-l tanks,” he argues. “More people have to begin to ask what the tradeoffs are.” The White House has already shaved 7.5 per cent from the 1982 NASA budget and would like to slash another $367 million.

In search of more money to shore up its program, NASA is struggling to fan

interest in space manufacturing among companies already involved in crystals, metallurgy and pharmaceuticals. But some observers argue that the delays that have already hampered the shuttle have also discouraged would-be investors. “Normally the turnaround time on an investment is three years,” notes Thomas Piwonka, manager of materials research for Cleveland’s TRW Inc., which is working to develop space factories. “But NASA is asking us to wait 15.”

Staying clear of the wrangling, Canadian companies are busily supplying

NASA with materials to expand its shuttle program. A prime mover is Wester’ Shore, which is designing a larger working environment for the shuttle astronauts. A push button will activate the prefabricated unit, housed behind the cockpit. At the signal, the addition will assemble itself automatically, like a space-borne camper-trailer. In developing the module, Wester’ Shore had to rewrite the book on construction: without weight there is no need for support beams, yet the unit must withstand pressures of takeoff and landing. Claims Schneiderman: “The shirt-sleeves environment is vital to the success of further missions.”

While the American space program has no immediate fears of competition from the north, it must face a direct challenge from Europe and Japan (where industrial giants Sony and Mitsubishi hope to corner the market on the gallium arsenide crystal). Small wonder that many observers are alarmed at the spectre of the final frontier being carved up among the multinational corporations of the industrialized nations. Just as they have squabbled over the wealth of the sea for the past decade, countries now argue over the riches of space: should they be shared or remain the preserve of private enterprise? Underdeveloped countries argue that space is a common heritage while industry defends stake-andclaim exploitation. Asks Schneiderman: “Why should countries which haven’t contributed to the start-up costs reap the benefits?”

That is by no means the only sore point. International law has little to say about jurisdiction and controls in space—and, indeed, industry may even expect a hands-off attitude from governments in return for its hefty investment. Prof. Jean Magdelenat, assistant director at McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law, foresees legal battles between companies and nations.

As governments hammer out the problems of jurisdiction, ecologists worry about the long-term impact of space manufacturing. Some fear that the Earth’s atmosphere will suffer as rockets spill their toxic fuel. Others worry that plans to harness solar energy and beam it to Earth as microwaves will endanger the population.

But for companies on the threshold of space, the benefits of new drugs and stronger materials far outweigh the costs and concerns of more conservative earthlings. Schneiderman sees the dawning of space industrialization as the coming of a new Renaissance. “It took the crown jewels of a major European power to send Columbus to North America. It will take at least that to open up this frontier, but I’m sure the paybacks will exceed the costs.”