This guest contribution is part of our ISS20 series commemorating 20 years of continuous human presence on the ISS through a collection of visionary contributions on the future of space.
Andrew Rush is the president of Made In Space, Inc and chief operating officer of Redwire. As the leader of Made in Space, Rush believes that manufacturing will enable humanity to sustainably live and work in space.
Space exploration is a team sport. While visionaries throughout history have made incredible individual contributions, progress has always been—and will continue to be—made collectively. The International Space Station (ISS)—humanity’s greatest engineering marvel—is a testament to what can be achieved when we harness that collaborative and innovative spirit. Over the last 20 years, humanity has maintained a stepping stone into the cosmos that has yielded insights, discoveries, and fundamental changes to the human experience.
In the last decade, we have seen reusable rockets fly to the edge of space and return to Earth as if they were boomerangs. With just a few keystrokes, we have seen tools 3D printed off the face of the Earth and delivered to astronauts within hours. And we have witnessed the arrival of a broad-based, though nascent, commercial space industry, encapsulated in a singular moment when we watched in May 2020 as NASA astronauts launched to their orbital outpost in a rocket and spacecraft built and operated entirely by a commercial company.
These moments and many others are milestones that have reaffirmed the value of the ISS for the expansion of humanity into the stars. However, the legacy of the ISS cannot just be that we built the greatest spacecraft ever. It will not simply be 20 years and counting of permanent human presence in space. Rather, the legacy of the ISS should be that the greatest spacecraft ever constructed enabled permanent human settlement of space, birthed a sustainable low Earth orbit economy, and was the proving ground for innovations necessary for continuing the human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
In the last decade, many people have come together to pioneer innovative manufacturing techniques in orbit that have firmly established in-space manufacturing as a critical capability for the future of space exploration and a key driver for space commercialization.
Through the development, launch, and in-orbit demonstration of multiple space manufacturing facilities, a new era of space utilization has dawned, seeing tools, products, and essential hardware manufactured on demand. The advent of these advanced manufacturing capabilities on the ISS are important steps toward sustainable human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. If tools can be manufactured on demand on the ISS, then one day also so can satellites, spacecraft support systems, and even entire spacecraft. If you can manufacture a wrench in space without needing a resupply mission, then the path toward constructing habitats in low Earth orbit or settlements on the Moon is that much more clear. The ISS has been delivering on its promise to teach us what we can achieve in space and guide humanity’s future in space.
As the next era in human spaceflight unfolds before our eyes, we once again look to the innovation that started on the ISS to inform next-generation space architectures that take advantage of manufacturing, making them more reliable and adaptable. This will be crucial as the Moon-to-Mars exploration roadmap becomes reality and we see human explorers touch unexplored pockets of our solar system. Developing new capabilities like metal manufacturing and electronics manufacturing while adapting new methodologies for in-space resource utilization (ISRU) manufacturing and construction to support critical surface activities on distant destinations are key enablers of the vision of sustained human presence on the Moon. Each of these next-generation technologies will be built off the flight heritage and insight of the space manufacturing facilities that have operated on the ISS.
Over the last 20 years, the ISS has enabled humanity’s permanent presence in low Earth orbit. But it has inspired so much more, including our persistent belief that we can sustainably live and work among the stars. The ISS has proved it possible that our foothold in space can launch the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation to scale space infrastructure so that many more explorers can boldly go. All that have participated should be proud to contribute to that legacy because that is what 20 years of operation and innovation on the ISS represents—a sustainable future for all of us.