ZBLAN is different. It is not for NASA. ZBLAN was discovered in the 1970s and is a strange and moody material. A type of heavy metal fluoride glass which, instead of the typical silicic acid, has absorption and scattering properties and is therefore well suited for high-end lasers and even for underwater internet cables. However, the material is fragile and, due to the varying density of its constituents on cooling, develops microcrystals that nullify its potential. On Earth, the ZBLAN producers come up with large systems that drop glass melts over several storeys and divide the material into strands. So far, however, microgravity provides the best environment to avoid density differences and avoid costly crystallization. The US Air Force tested the hypothesis for the first time in the 1
Made in Space has already taken its microwave-sized ZBLAN lab into operation on previous SpaceX launches. Unlike a typical factory, where a machine is loaded and reloaded with its raw materials, this machine drives more. The precursor materials are preloaded in the laboratory. When the cable is wound up, astronauts send the machine back to earth with the finished fiber. "We try to be respectful of the time astronauts have," says Rush. "They take it out, connect power and data, and float away." (In the future, the company plans to deploy a production facility in orbit so that only the material goes up and down.) The project remains in research Rush plans, however, to build a larger facility next year that can produce enough ZBLAN to be sold to customers.
Even with high costs for introduction and return, the bill for orbital production works out, says Rush. One kilogram of material can produce thousands of meters of ZBLAN, and each meter costs more than $ 100. The company said it had invested millions in ZBLAN development, none of which was from NASA.
"It might not be successful in the end," says Rush. "And even if you can, you can not build anything with a foundation." Made in Space plans to launch "four to six" other payloads next year to test other materials that could benefit from weightlessness production.
For Bridenstine, the production of medicines is yet another untapped business field. Last month, NASA launched the Industrial Biomedicine Alliance with the University of Pittsburgh. Medical research is already a key component of what the ISS does, but according to Bill Wagner, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Pitt, the idea is to find business models that excite investors. The materials are the most advanced – the institute is already experimenting with degradable metal alloys suitable for coronary stents. It is also exciting that microgravity could delay stem cell differentiation and broaden the window for experimentation and that the disease-accelerating effects of microgravity could make the ISS an attractive place to test drugs with so-called organs on a chip instead of humans.  However, the commercialization of medicines and devices requires huge investment – hundreds of millions of dollars to support a clinical trial, for example – and research is still in the making. Wagner thinks it will take a while for this type of money to come in. The alliance is more likely to gather ideas that could attract larger investors. "Maybe I would not make a big dollar bet, but I want to keep this seat at the table," he says.
George Washington's Hertzfeld is not convinced that NASA's plans have legs. Attempts to launch space production eventually go back to the Reagan era. But there are a few reasons for optimism, he says. On the one hand, the ZBLAN plans are about improving a product that is already on the world market and not about generating demand from scratch. Then there is the emerging orbital economy: companies that are already carrying and transporting payloads to the ISS and designing equipment and robots. In addition, there are opportunities for satellite maintenance and tourism that could justify a stable human presence in orbit.