Spaceflight Companies Look to R&D Clients for Repeat Business

As countdowns near, carriers turn to companies interested in microgravity research
Photographs by Steve Bloom/Alamy (Earth); Ship courtesy Virgin Galactic

Commercial space travel is almost here. For real this time. Sometime in 2014, Virgin Galactic will be able to fly 100 kilometers into the sky and put you in near-zero gravity for a few minutes. The price tag: $250,000. Already Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and Richard Branson, the company’s eccentric billionaire founder, have lined up with 600 other people to get on flights. Booking a flight on rival Xcor Aerospace will cost roughly $100,000, the company says. Blue Origin, the space company launched by founder Jeff Bezos, says it’s close behind but hasn’t put out a price list just yet.

Musicians, actors, and wealthy corporate executives won’t keep these companies flying forever. Virgin estimates it will run through its star-studded list in 12 to 18 months. So most of the space companies expect to turn to a less glamorous source of business to keep them going: companies and researchers in search of a little time at near-zero gravity to conduct experiments.

The near-weightless state known as microgravity has uncanny and, for researchers, desirable effects on a wide range of technologies. Companies such as Procter & Gamble and Merck have performed experiments in space for years to better understand how their toothpaste ingredients bind together or their engineered antibodies attack disease in isolation, without the complicating effects of gravity. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has tested its medical devices in low G and wants to conduct suborbital drug research on animals. Startup Made in Space intends to test whether its 3D printers can work in near orbit. Space also makes stem cells grow superfast: “Give me 30 to 35 days, and I’ll build you a kidney,” says genetic engineer Richard Godwin, the chief executive officer of stem-cell startup Zero Gravity Solutions. “How expensive is that? Who cares?”

Ideally, many of these experiments would be performed in the International Space Station, where they could undergo longer-term observations, but trips that far into orbit are costly and infrequent. The new spaceflights will offer quicker chances for experimentation and allow scientists to interact with their equipment while it’s up there. “Now space scientists can go into the field and get some measurements and get some hard data and not just rely on models,” Khaki Rodway, Xcor’s director of payload services and operations, said at a Silicon Valley space conference in October.

“Unlike tourists, researchers will fly their experiments multiple times,” says James Muncy, the founder of independent space policy consultancy PoliSpace. The companies are also competing for former clients of NASA, which before its space shuttle program was mothballed in 2011, regularly ferried experiments into space and sometimes to the International Space Station. Virgin has contracted with NASA to run some of the scientific missions that interest the agency, such as the Made in Space printing project.

Xcor, based in Mojave, Calif., plans to begin commercial flights of its Lynx spaceship in late 2014. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will fly from the spaceport it’s building at its headquarters in Las Cruces, N.M. Both vehicles look a little like a cross between the space shuttle and a jet. Fourteen-year-old Xcor has signed deals with Mitsubishi Heavy; a group called Citizens in Space, which has bought 10 flights earmarked for regular folks; and Unilever, which plans to send 23 people into space to promote its line of Axe body sprays and deodorants. Virgin says it’s just waiting on the results of a few last test flights in December and some final regulatory hurdles to begin its commercial flights.

Regularly scheduled flights for customers doing research and development would be a major leap beyond what government programs had offered the private sector in the past, says Sean Casey, the managing director of the Silicon Valley Space Center, which advises space startups. “Researchers have been turned off by NASA’s traditional time scale,” he says. “With Xcor, you can spend $1 million to $2 million and do 10 flights each with about six minutes of microgravity and make sure your experiments are working.” Blue Origin business development manager Erika Wagner said during the recent space conference that the company’s goal is spaceflight at a moment’s notice. “We will roll out of the garage,” she said. “This is gas and go.”

Godwin of Zero Gravity Solutions, which got room on NASA shuttles when the program was still operating, says the ability to buy a spot on regular spaceflights will help accelerate research. Zero Gravity, in Boca Raton, Fla., has been trying to crack the genetic code of a tropical plant called jatropha, a promising biofuel limited on earth by its inability to survive cool temperatures. Looking at data collected during a 2010 spaceflight on the NASA Endeavor, Godwin’s researchers found that jatropha cells under exposure to low gravity began to express previously unknown cold-tolerance genes. They’re still trying to figure out how to activate the genes back at home. “When you turn off gravity, a plant doesn’t know what’s going on, and it ignites all of its survival mechanisms,” Godwin says. “Here is a plant that produces 500 percent more yield as a biofuel than corn or switch grass and could be a new cash crop. You might be able to grow this stuff in Texas and have a new variety of the plant that is patentable and licensable.”

Price may remain a catch for some space customers. Virgin says flying a simple, nonhazardous single cargo bag or storage locker will cost around $50,000, but clients who want one of the company’s spacecrafts to themselves for a flight will have to pay north of $1.2 million. “Centuries ago people put a load on a camel’s back and walked from China to Istanbul to make a profit,” Godwin says. “It was low volume and high value, and this is the same thing. I call it the Silk Road from space.”