Public-private partnerships are a key component to driving innovation and national leadership. With the potential to address a wide array of modern challenges from technology development to infrastructure modernization, and from education to the economic development of space, public-private partnerships unlock new possibilities unavailable when we rely solely on public or private investment.
The International Space Station (ISS) National laboratory is a great example of a public-private partnership model that is working in space. The ISS National Lab opens up the incredible possibilities of the space station research environment to a diverse range of researchers, entrepreneurs, and innovators that could create entirely new markets in space.
The ISS National Laboratory – Accelerating Utilization of the ISS
The ISS offers a unique research and development platform, unlike any on Earth, enabling research that benefits both exploration and life on Earth. In an effort to expand the research opportunities this unparalleled platform provides to the nation, the ISS United States Orbital Segment, through bipartisan legislation, was designated as a U.S. National Laboratory in 2005, enabling research and development access to a broad range of commercial, academic, and government users. After final assembly of the ISS in 2011, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, a (501)(c)(3) organization, was selected by NASA to manage the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. The ISS National Lab fulfills its mission to accelerate space-based research by engaging a variety of nontraditional space users, operating in the fields of life science, physical science, technology development, and remote sensing. The ISS National Lab engages primarily with organizations that pay toward the value obtained on the ISS, as well as with other organizations addressing national science and research priorities. This research serves commercial and entrepreneurial needs and other important goals such as the pursuit of new knowledge and education. Since 2011, the ISS National Lab has stewarded more than 200 ISS research projects, ranging from developing new drug therapies, to monitoring tropical cyclones, to improving equipment for first-responders, to producing unique fiber-optics materials in space. Working together with NASA, the ISS National Lab aims to advance the nation’s leadership in commercial space, pursue groundbreaking science not possible on Earth, and leverage the space station to inspire the next generation.
Prior to the ISS National Lab model, NASA traditionally funded all aspects of ISS research, whether it was research needed to further exploration, or discovery-based space research that expanded upon its scientific agenda. As the ISS evolved into a National Laboratory, the ISS National Lab has increased the diversity of users by accelerating utilization of the ISS as an innovation platform for a wide variety of partners. These include Fortune 500 organizations, small businesses, educational institutions, philanthropic and research foundations, federal and state government agencies, and other thought leaders in pursuit of groundbreaking technology and innovation who are interested in leveraging microgravity to solve complex research problems on Earth. The ISS National Lab plays a role in not only attracting a diverse set of users, including private companies, to utilize the ISS, but also in engaging the private sector through various research and cost-sharing arrangements.
Sponsored Programs – Accelerating Third-Party Funding for Space Research
The ISS National Lab has developed a successful Sponsored Program model that attracts third-party funding from private industry and other government agencies to solve big problems or address target challenges. These programs translate into projects on the ISS National Lab. The Sponsored Program model enables an organization to ask new questions and explore key variables, using the ISS National Lab environment as a tool in their innovation portfolio. In return, the organization creates opportunities for targeted research and development projects and STEM education projects or fosters novel ideas of startup companies. Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and regional incubators have successfully used the ISS National Lab Sponsored Program model. This unique research and development model is flexible to meet the needs and budget of a partnering organization. Successful Sponsored Programs include Boeing Mass Challenge, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, National Science Foundation (NSF) fluid dynamics and combustion Sponsored Program, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) organ-on-chip technologies Sponsored Program, totaling more than $20 million in third-party funding over the last two years. Additional Sponsored Programs totaling close to $5 million in 2017 with Fortune 500 organizations are imminent and will target major challenges to humankind as well as STEM education initiatives.
New Pathways for Space R&D Demand
Much of the ISS National Lab portfolio consists of organizations starting new space commercial activities. Over the last five years, the ISS National Lab has made concerted efforts to educate a wide variety of organizations about the opportunity that the ISS National Lab represents. Many of these organizations are now using the ISS National Lab as part of their research and technology development process for the first time. Demand for space projects is being seen in the following areas:
- Better targeting and quick-to-fail models in drug development that can lead to breakthroughs in curing disease and better drug delivery systems that can lead to increased access of therapies throughout the world
- Accelerated disease modeling associated with aging and chronic disease
- Regenerative medicine breakthroughs that can repair, restore, or replace damaged tissues and organs by creating ways to expand and grow cells in a three-dimensional environment
- Crop science breakthroughs that can lead to ways to feed the growing world population with less land, water, etc.
- An improved understanding of fundamental material properties that can lead to novel materials and better manufacturing processes on Earth
- Creation of commercially relevant microgravity enabled materials that may transform many U.S. industries including telecommunication semiconductor manufacturing
- 3D-metal printing and other additive manufacturing capacity in space
- Quantum satellite technology that could benefit national security
- Remote sensing capability that can impact a variety of downstream applications including maritime security (jamming, spoofing), weather, agriculture productivity, energy, and urban development
Commercial Services Providers – A Competitive Marketplace for Space Services
As the demand for space research and development projects increases, the supply of access to space and research and development facilities will need to be augmented. In space, private-sector commercial research and development facility operators are on the forefront of a new era of space research on the ISS and future space platforms. These organizations operate their facilities internally and externally on the ISS. They provide users with more choices to address unique research needs and are the pathfinders for a marketplace in low Earth orbit. Many of these companies have used their own resources to invest in in-orbit research and development facilities, reducing the risk for the federal sector to develop these facilities and services. In its first five years, the ISS National Lab has supported growth in the number of these research and development facility operators from one in FY12 to five in FY16—with four additional facilities expected to begin in-orbit operations by FY18. The ISS National Lab fosters healthy competition between these supply partners by allowing them to bid on each commercial customer project, seeking the best solution for the customer. The current commercial facility operators are:
- NanoRacks – Since 2009, NanoRacks has provided hardware and services for the International Space Station National Laboratory. Three internal research platforms can house plug-and-play NanoLabs and provide critical capabilities such as centrifugation and microscopy. Additionally, the NanoRacks External Platform was launched in FY15 and provides capabilities for Earth and deep space observation, sensor development, and testing for advanced electronics and materials.
- BioServe – In-orbit offerings from BioServe include multiple life sciences facilities and kits, including the multi-purpose Space Automated Bioproduct Laboratory (SABL), launched in FY15. SABL supports myriad initiatives for commercial life sciences research as well as physical and material science experiments.
- TechShot – Launched in FY15, the TechShot Bone Densitometer is a commercial bone-density scanner for use in spaceflight rodent research. In just one year, the successful operation of this facility has already demonstrated its utility as a catalyst for disease modeling research and commercial biomedical initiatives in space.
- Made In Space – In FY16, the Additive Manufacturing Facility developed by Made In Space launched to the International Space Station, enabling 3D printing projects from commercial, educational, and government entities interested in the development of objects for experiments and technology demonstrations. These objects will be produced onboard the International Space Station in a fraction of the time currently required to have such objects manifested and delivered to the station using traditional ground preparation and launch.
- Space Tango – TangoLab-1 is a general research platform launched in FY16. This facility from Space Tango allows multiple automated experiments in the life and physical sciences to run simultaneously. This architecture minimizes crew member interaction and reduces complexity while increasing scalability, enabling improved throughput for users.
In addition to currently available capabilities, a growing pipeline of commercial ISS National Lab facilities in preparation (from Teledyne Brown, AlphaSpace, STaArS, and HNu Photonics) will advance research in remote sensing, materials testing, molecular biology, and tissue culture. Companies are exploring how these capabilities might transition onto future low Earth orbit platforms, from free-flying spacecraft to expandable modules. Through support of such companies, the ISS National Lab and NASA are enabling the International Space Station National Laboratory to serve as an incubator for the low Earth orbit market and U.S. private sector spaceflight interests, and are using public-private partnership funding models to share the risk and benefits of these emerging human space flight activities.
ISS National Laboratory – Bringing Scientific and Economic Value to the Nation
The ISS National Lab is executing congressional intent by leveraging public-private partnerships to get the most out of the ISS. With the active involvement of our partners, the ISS National Lab is helping deliver advances of scientific and economic value to the nation. As our outreach leads more organizations to form public-private partnerships to use the ISS National Lab, the nation’s return on its investment in the ISS will continue to increase. And as the ISS approaches the end of its planned service life, Congress will have an opportunity to consider the value of maintaining a national laboratory on another platform.