By Mark A. DeSorbo
WEST COVINA, Calif.—Gene Meyers is a commercial real estate developer, but the property he has targeted for new pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities is more than 400 miles in the sky.
An eight-and-a-half minute rocket ship ride to giant bicycle wheel-like Dual-ET (external fuel tank) space stations made of spent fuel tanks from NASA space shuttle missions is not an illusion of grandeur or some pipe dream that the founder and president of Space Island Group Inc. hopes to achieve in a decade from now. In fact, Meyers, a veteran industrial engineer, says the private, non-government corporation will begin launching these cosmic cleanrooms into space by 2007.
“These fuel tanks are 100 feet long and 28 feet in diameter,” he says. “It will hold the living quarters for 12 people, laboratories and manufacturing facilities inside one of these tanks.”
So, what does outer space have that the planet earth doesn't? Zero gravity, Meyers says, and a profound impact on the electrophoresis—a critical purification step in many manufacturing processes in which charged particles or molecules move through a solution in an electrical field.
Meyers likens the process on earth to a glass of water with sand in it. Stir it up, and the granules become momentarily suspended, but quickly succumb to the grip of gravity. In the absence of gravity, proteins and compounds used to make pharmaceuticals would remain suspended, allowing contaminants or stow-away molecules to be removed in a superior purification process that cannot be replicated on earth.
“You get a much finer purification process without gravity pulling these heavier molecules to the bottom of the mixture,” he adds. “The purity levels of compounds made in space are 10 to 100 times better in potency and purity than compounds made on earth.”
To revolutionize manufacturing of all types, Meyers wants to reuse the large orange external fuel tanks that blast the shuttle into orbit, but eventually fall off and burn up in the atmosphere. Leaving them in space, the tanks could be converted into human habitats for not just a host of industries, but for tourism purposes as well.
“NBC and General Electric are interested because it could even be set up as a zero- gravity sports arena,” he says.
Ideally, a tank would first be converted into living quarters, lab and factory space. It would then be coupled to an identical tank with engines and two solid rocket boosters—a set-up much like NASA space shuttles.
Once launched from its own complexes in California and Florida, the two narrower rocket boosters would separate from the unit, while the converted tank and a functioning fuel tank would remain in orbit.
“The fuel is just oxygen and hydrogen, and once it's gone, the tank could be pressurized so that personnel can enter it and renovate it in to more cleanroom or laboratory space,” Meyers says. “They could set it up as another pharmaceutical production area or a satellite repair facility because the nose can be hinged so it can open to accept large satellites.”
Meyers, along with a NASA pharmaceutical research specialist and an equipment designer from Spacehab Inc.—a Houston, Texas-based developer of habitat and laboratory modules and cargo carriers for space exploration—will discuss its heavenly vision during a conference session at CleanRooms East 2004 this March in Orlando, Fla.
NASA, university researchers, Spacehab, cleanroom experts, and FDA officials are helping Space Island Group design the first facility, which will cost an estimated $3 billion.
“Spacehab's support to Space Island Group has, so far, involved development of architectural, outfitting and operational concepts that adapt the Dual-ET space station to accommodate commercial bio-medical and pharmacological research and production activities in space,” says Frank Eichstadt, director of product definition for Spacehab.
The company has also prepared an overview of related payloads, technologies and experiments that have either flown in space in the past or are planned for flight aboard the space shuttle and International Space Station, and could represent the basis for larger-scale installations.
“These two products together offer a vision of a facility representing a quantum leap beyond current space activities, essentially moving activities in 'low earth orbit' beyond the exploratory phase toward full-scale commercial utilization,” Eichstadt adds.
There are, he explains, significant distinctions involving the remoteness of an orbiting facility hundreds of miles above Earth and traveling at 18,000 miles per hour. Ground-based facilities enjoy resources typically available in terrestrial industrial settings, such as power, communications services and environmental resources (like atmospheric air for ventilation), to name a few.
“An orbiting facility exists, literally, in a vacuum,” Eichstadt says. “Remoteness demands that facilities and operations be designed in the context of a comprehensive plan for supplying and sustaining the facility with transportation and resources. The low earth orbit environment also presents system-balancing challenges, [e.g.] generating adequate power to support systems and operations while also providing adequate capacity to radiate the heat generated while using all that power back into the vacuum of space.”
Limited availability of crew time to maintain and operate the facility, and to conduct commercial research and production, demands that automation and efficiency also be considered to maximize productivity, he says. Closed environments like a space station also demand that materials be selected that do not present hazards to the crew.
“Transportation costs introduce serious limitations on weight and volume,” Eichstadt says. “Equipment reliability, serviceability, and provision of spares are all critical, because you can't run down to the store to get what you need. These are but a few indications of the impact of the low earth orbit environment on systems and facility design and operation.”
Eichstadt adds, “Considering controlled environments in particular, terrestrial cleanrooms are isolated from external contaminant sources and provide further control of sources of potentially hazardous or contaminating substances within that space. Space-based cleanrooms, like those targeted for the Space Island Lab-ET, strive to achieve the same ends, but must address various unique aspects relating to the closed nature of the hosting facility, micro-gravity conditions, limited resources, and unique safety, reliability, and maintainability concerns.”
Ventilation and filtration systems, for example, must be designed in concert with environmental control and life support systems such that cleanroom and general-access areas of the Lab-ET remain completely discrete, while occupying the limited volume of a closed facility and operating on a limited energy budget.
This drives not only the ongoing operations of the cleanroom, he says, but also the Lab-ET systems that host and support the operation of the environment.
“Lack of gravity-induced convection requires that all air exchanged throughout the facility—whether for environmental conditioning or for cleanroom filtration—be entirely driven by powered fans such that no dead zones remain unventilated,” Eichstadt says.
Another concern involves mutual isolation of multiple cleanrooms aboard a common Lab-ET station, where each may support the discrete operations of individual commercial tenants. Eichstadt adds that hosting multiple tenants aboard a common Lab-ET station demands that the architecture, systems and operations support the continued viability of each tenant's facilities and preserve each tenant's ability to conduct proprietary operations independent of those of other clients.
“As with most aspects of space flight, the true challenges for design and operations are not immediately evident to those having lived every day of their lives on the planet,” Eichstadt says.
Just the same, Meyers hopes to launch 200 to 300 hundred of these Lab-ET space stations, and lease the space to a host of industries, including semiconductor, optical component and fuel cell membrane manufacturers.
Meyers and Eichstadt agree that taking advantage of the unique environment of space will yield “unforeseeable” discoveries and capabilities that go far beyond aerospace, including breakthroughs in biological and pharmaceutical research and productions, materials science and other fields.
“NASA is really the research and development group,” Meyers says. “Then we take that hardware and develop markets for it.” Eichstadt agrees, adding that “Energetic advocacy, combined with this vision, will ultimately make space into a place of business and discovery, not just a target for exploration.”