Some early entrepreneurs are starting to see returns on their investments in International Space Station (ISS) business, as the $100 billion orbiting laboratory continues a slow turn away from assembly operations to utilization.

Some 28% of U.S. rack space on the station remains unused, NASA officials say. The station still has not reached its full capacity, in part because worries about how long it will remain in orbit and what happens to intellectual property generated there give pause to some potential users.

Those concerns have not stopped Nanoracks LLC, a Houston-based startup that built a low-cost small-payload accommodation based on the cubesat standard and persuaded NASA to install it on the ISS three years ago.

Since then the company has expanded on that model to offer space on several internal and external ISS facilities, and has plans for another significant addition to its revenue stream.

The work won Nanoracks the first American Astronautical Society ISS innovation award at the organization's space station research and development conference here last week. But more importantly, the company is moving ahead with a new station app that promises a significant boost in its cash flow—commercial cubesat launches from a multi-unit dispenser of its own design (see photo inset).

“After we became the first company to coordinate a small satellite deployment from station, we were very very surprised by the market response,” says Jeff Manber, Nanoracks founder and managing director. “It became clear that people are enamored for using the ISS for a variety of reasons—frequent access, and the fact that it's available.”

Like the first satellite it launched—a Vietnamese cubesat—Nanoracks will use the Japanese Kibo module's airlock, exposed facility and robotic arm to launch multiple cubesats with the new dispenser scheduled to reach the station by the end of the year.

Cubesats will be packed into the dispenser's eight spring-loaded tubes for the ride to orbit, according to Michael Johnson, the company's chief technology officer. The ISS crew will send them outside through the airlock, and use the robotic arm to move the dispenser into position on the Earth-facing side of the station. The satellites will be deployed into a retrograde orbit below the station to avoid recontact, says Johnson.

From there, they will function for as long as a year before reentering.

Nanoracks is charging $85,000 per 10-cc cubesat “U” for the service, and expects to launch as many as 38 of the units on the first mission. It has invested about $500,000 developing the hardware, and is taking advantage of free NASA transport to orbit.

In addition to the traditional academic payloads that formed the company's initial market, some of the commercial multilaunch customers are attracted by the relatively low cost of access to orbit, and some of them are developing Earth-observation and other businesses that will require constellations of the tiny spacecraft.

Nanoracks isn't the only company gearing up to sell accommodation on the station. Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., which has built several flight-releasable attachment mechanisms (Frams) for the ISS exterior, plans to launch a pointable Fram-based Earth-observation platform to the station next year and sell space on it under a cooperative agreement with NASA (AW&ST June 18, 2012, p. 16).

But after that, congressional hopes to commercialize part of the U.S. accommodation on the ISS have yet to be realized. The nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), chosen by NASA to manage the U.S. National Laboratory that Congress set aside for commercial work, has attracted only $2 million in outside funds. Created by Space Florida, the state's aerospace-business development agency, Casis has relied on $15 million in annual NASA funding to hire a staff of 31 and organize 40 National Lab flight projects to date.

Casis has issued three request for proposals (RFP) for station research, and has funded six projects in protein crystal growth and two in materials science. An RFP on stem-cell research closes July 25.

Duane Ratliff, chief operating officer and NASA liaison at Casis, says the new organization shifted six months ago from a “membership” approach requiring participants to “buy in” to a “partnership” format of sharing necessary resources. The nonprofit still lacks an executive director, and has been feeling its way into a field long dominated by NASA's mission-oriented needs.

“We need to be able to translate both their findings and some of the questions that haven't been asked as to where the terrestrial interests may lie,” Ratliff says. We need the answers to the very fundamental questions of what it is that microgravity can provide with respect to developing product applications, intellectual property, or others.”

The nonprofit has focused its efforts to find projects and outside investment in the technology-rich areas around Cambridge, Mass., Houston and Denver, and plans another drive in Silicon Valley in California soon, Ratliff says. Sticking points with potential partners include uncertainty over how long the station will continue to operate, and concern that the Casis agreement with NASA does not offer sufficient protection of intellectual property. Both issues are being addressed as Congress works on a NASA reauthorization bill.

Meanwhile, the space agency has started producing some meaningful results with the station research it funds through its own scientists and those affiliated with U.S. academic institutions. Among advances reported at the conference here were the discovery at the University of California, San Francisco, via some very sophisticated skeletal measurements of returning astronauts, that a combination of rigorous resistive exercise and doses of alendronate or other bisphosphonates in orbit can virtually eliminate the weakening that occurs when bones lose their gravity loading during extended missions.

Researchers at the University of Delaware used magnetic fields to align colloids in microgravity, holding promise for manufacturing more efficient solar arrays and other applications requiring nanostructures. Space-combustion studies at NASA's Glenn Research Center that detected and characterized previously unseen “cool flames” as various chemical fuels burned out holds promise for more efficient internal combustion engines, as well as fire-safety implications for spacecraft.

In non-NASA government research, the station's Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO), when combined with careful in situ calibration, has given the Environmental Protection Agency a new tool for monitoring coastal water quality from space that may produce a smartphone app for swimmers, campers and boaters.

But while there is increasing interest in using the station as an orbital platform for remote-sensing and technology research, there also is a perception among possible users here that safety and other regulations will make it more trouble than it is worth to get on board.

NASA and Casis officials deny that is the case, and point to a changing attitude among station gatekeepers as the program shifts from managing an incredibly complex space-assembly job to running a functioning scientific laboratory.

“Now it's built,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager. “Now we're making our switch, and we're changing our mindset to a more research-mission phase, and with that you've got to increase the throughput. So there's been a paradigm shift in the program. This almost sounds sacrilegious, but to operate safely is just not good enough anymore. The trick is, how do you operate safely, and get more and more out of this spacecraft?”