The Best Place to Make Undersea Cables Might Be ... in Space

Last month, the startup Made in Space gave NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine an elaborate show of its orbit-bound automation. Like the Fates pinching the thread of life, a robotic arm unspooled a thin copper wire for a self-assembling satellite dish. Nearby, a plastic bar, carved as a lattice to shrink its weight, stretched across the ceiling, demonstrating how a 3D printer might eventually crank out rods for massive solar panels. Designed for use in space, the idea is that a satellite would print and assemble its unwieldy power supply once in orbit, rather than bringing it along from Earth. In July, Made In Space received a $74 million investment from NASA to send up such a satellite, dubbed the Archinaut, in 2022.

But perhaps the most valuable product of Made in Space, at least anytime soon, lay unassuming on a nearby table: a coil of wires, stuffed inside a plastic bag, that looked like it should plug into one of the fancy 3D printers or robots around it. The wire, called ZBLAN, is a niche form of fiber-optic material that Made In Space plans to start selling in small quantities next year. The catch? ZBLAN will be produced on the International Space Station and then shipped back down for terrestrial use. CEO Andrew Rush believes that once production ramps up, it will be a “Netscape moment” for space manufacturing, referring to the early web browser that propelled private investment in the internet. NASA, keen to develop what it calls a “low-Earth-orbit economy,” hopes he’s right.

In June, NASA declared the ISS open for commercial business. The agency would remove earlier restrictions on profit-seeking activities onboard the space station. The plan came with specifics, down to price lists for renting equipment to space tourists and rules for using astronauts’ time to market products. The long-term goal, however, is somewhat hazier—to hand off the $3 billion-a-year research lab to private industry partners, perhaps, or shut it down and get a private space station up and running. In short, NASA wants to be done shouldering the financial responsibility for the ISS, so that it can instead spend taxpayer money on other things, like colonizing the moon.

For that to work, NASA needs to prove there’s money to be made in orbit and customers other than, well, NASA. One focus is space-based manufacturing. Last month, Bridenstine told the National Space Council that manufacturing would create demand for a commercial presence in orbit in “three to seven years.” Rush says the goal is to earn enough on its fiber-optic cable sales to prove itself a “credit-worthy tenant.” At least two other companies have expressed interest in using the ISS to manufacture—wait for it—more ZBLAN. And when NASA solicited plans for a private space station to succeed the ISS, Lockheed prominently featured ZBLAN manufacturing as a place to start.

Made in Space will be the first to prove that out. But what else needs to be, well, made in space? “It’s not simple. It’s not cheap. And it is hard to justify,” says Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University. “I’ve seen paper proposals galore on the business ideas for years and years, but most of them don’t close.”

Like other orbital upstarts, Made in Space is an exception for a simple reason: NASA is currently its primary investor and customer. The company is perhaps best known for a 2014 demonstration of 3D printing in which it passed a wrench, digitally speaking, from Earth into orbit. Rush says that’s since become routine on the ISS, where astronauts have received blueprints from the ground hundreds of times to print tools and replacement parts using plastic polymers.