I happen to own something that has been to space – a laptop bag made partly from the orange nylon of Soyuz re-entry parachute:
A Montreal company, Everquest Design, went out to Kazahkstan in 2003 and recovered the parachute after the Soyuz capsule. They’ve been cutting it up for use in various products ever since.
But after more than sixty years of space flight, after about 8000 launches and 150 person-years in orbit, the extraordinary thing is that nothing has ever been commercially manufactured in orbit. It’s been talked about from the very beginning. Perfect crystals! Pure proteins! Maybe even solar panels made from lunar silicon and beaming their power down to earth via microwaves. Yes, seriously.
People have tried. Hundreds of experiments have been done, starting on Soyuz 6 and Skylab in the early 1970s, and continuing on the ISS right up to the present:
Blobs of different density diffuse more uniformly in zero-gee. Materials can be grown without containers, reducing defects. Phenomena such as thermo-capilliary action, where the temperature loss caused by evaporation on the surface of a liquid causes convective currents inside it, can be studied much more easily.
There’s value to this in understanding the mechanisms, but none in manufacture. Things worth doing have to be scalable. It’s not enough to make one perfect boule of silicon – you have to make a lot of it to be worth the expense of the research. 50,000 tonnes of mono-crystalline silicon were made last year for use as chips, and that’s just not going to happen in a remote and incredibly expensive location.
So since serious uses of space haven’t worked out, we’re now into frivolous ones. Like laptop bags! And space tourism, where people will supposedly spend hundreds of thousands to experience a few minutes of zero-gee. And this week we heard of the ultimate space novelty item – Space Roasters claims they’ll get perfect coffee roasted completely uniformly in zero-gee:
During re-entry the capsule would experience several gees of deceleration, so the diagram makes no sense. They must mean a short sub-orbital hop where the roasting can be done while the beans float around. The capsule would splash down somewhere near Dubai, where they would sell it for €100 a cup. At 60 cups per kilo and 300 kilos per flight, that’s about $2M per flight, which might be reasonable for the Virgin Galactic ship or the plethora of small rocket companies that have been springing up.
But that’s ridiculous. I think the only remaining hope for space manufacture is the Air Force’s mysterious X37B space plane. It looks like a stubby Space Shuttle but is a quarter of the size. It’s launched on a regular rocket and then flies back down on its own. It has spent over seven years in orbit during five flights. The first was in 2011 and the fifth is still going. No one knows what it’s been doing up there. The boring answer is some kind of surveillance, but you wouldn’t need to return to earth for that. They are known to be testing Hall effect thrusters and exposing materials to space conditions. People have speculated that they’re releasing sub-satellites or spying on China’s Tiang-gong space station or looking at anti-satellite operations.
I prefer to think that they’re growing giant laser crystals for Air Force death rays. The cargo bay is 2.1 m x 1.2 m, about the volume of a closet, so it could make something of decent size. It spends one to two years up at a time, enough to do something serious. This weird zero-gee high-vacuum environment has to be good for making something!