SAN FRANCISCO — Entrepreneur Jeffrey Manber has big plans for NanoRacks LLC, the company he established in 2009 to offer customers a low-cost way to test miniature payloads aboard the international space station.
Initially, the Houston-based firm was focused on signing up university and corporate customers interested in sending one-kilogram experiments to the space station’s U.S. laboratory module. In recent months, however, NanoRacks has expanded its catalog of space-based research opportunities, forged international partnerships and attracted U.S. and European investors.
The company will continue seeking new ways to foster research on orbit, Manber said, as NanoRacks tries to become the premier commercial provider of space access. “We are showing that if you can figure out the right price point and protect intellectual property, you can attract customers for research in low Earth orbit,” he said.
NanoRacks LLC at a Glance
Top Official: Jeffrey Manber
Mission: To become a quality provider of space goods and services at the lowest possible cost and to become the company with the most experience in offering commercial customers access to space.
NanoRacks has signed contracts with educational institutions, research organizations and government groups to send more than 50 payloads into space. Manber attributes the firm’s success in attracting business to its low prices. The NanoRacks website advertises opportunities to send small, fluid-based experiments into space for $8,000. With $18,000, schools can join the Capitol Heights, Md.-based National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) program to send student-designed experiments into orbit. Schools also can place custom-designed research projects on the space station for $25,000, and companies can conduct similar experiments for $50,000.
“When we introduced our prices everyone laughed and said they were too low,” Manber said. “Well, I have news for the market, our prices may have been too high. We are relentless in trying to develop hardware at the lowest possible prices so true research can take place in space.”
Manber’s vision extends beyond low Earth orbit. “We will go where our customers want to go,” he said. “Right now, a growing number of international researchers and educators are thrilled to be able to experience the international space station environment in a commercial manner. But the next step is to offer access to geostationary orbit and interplanetary space. If the market wants to go there, we will follow.”
For the time being, company officials are focused on expanding opportunities for space station research. In September 2009, NanoRacks signed a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA which gave the company room in the U.S. research module for payload racks and the authority to conduct research on behalf of clients.
Since then, NanoRacks’ customers have performed 16 experiments in cube-shaped modules that measure 10 centimeters on a side and provide electrical power and data transfer through a standard USB connector. Kentucky Space, a nonprofit consortium of universities and public and private organizations, helped NanoRacks build the payload racks and flew one of the first experiments. “Everything went smoothly,” said Kris Kimel, founder and chairman of the Lexington-based organization. “We plan to continue to take advantage of the opportunity to send student and industry payloads into space.”
In an announcement scheduled for release June 27, NanoRacks said it will augment its space station research facilities with a centrifuge. Commercial customers will be able to use the centrifuge, being built by Astrium, a subsidiary of Europe’s EADS, in biological and life-science research in 2012, Manber said.
In 2012, NanoRacks customers also will gain access to a plate reader, a scientific tool used to provide a wide range of data on materials housed in flat panels with multiple wells that act like small test tubes.
NanoRacks continues to expand the number of on-orbit research tools it can offer customers due, in part, to the impending conclusion of the space shuttle program. The shuttle, which is scheduled to fly for the last time July 8, has offered NanoRacks’ customers the ability to send experiments into orbit and bring them home for analysis. In the future, NanoRacks plans to send equipment and experiments to the space station on Russian, Japanese, European and commercial American cargo vehicles, but the company will lose the ability to routinely return payloads to scientists, Manber said.
Within two years, NanoRacks plans to offer customers the chance to conduct experiments outside the space station. NanoRacks is devising an external platform to allow customers to learn, for example, how materials react to radiation since the experiments would not be shielded by the space station’s exterior. In 2012, company officials plan to test the concept with a small prototype, Manber said.
NanoRacks’ effort to bolster on-orbit research opportunities is being supported by investors. NanoRacks announced June 20 that 10 U.S. and European investors were backing the company. Manber declined to comment on the amount of money raised in the company’s first effort to attract external investment or to disclose the firm’s revenue, but said the new investments would help the company expand on-orbit research facilities and offer new opportunities for space-based testing.
A NanoRacks project that has received widespread attention is the company’s work with the NCESSE program to solicit student experiments. Beginning May 16, student payloads spent 12 days in orbit on Shuttle Endeavour’s last flight. Another 11 experiments created by students are scheduled to travel into orbit July 8 onboard Space Shuttle Atlantis during the last shuttle mission. The research flights offer a fantastic opportunity to inspire students, said Jeff Goldstein, NCESSE director. With help from NanoRacks, NCESSE was able to offer students nationwide a chance to study biological, physical or chemical systems in microgravity. “This was a real research-on-orbit opportunity for 10-year-olds,” he said.