COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Spacehab announced April 10 it intends to create a new division to pursue in-space manufacturing opportunities in life sciences and materials that could produce additional revenue for the struggling company in as little as two to three years.
Thomas B. Pickens, the Houston-based space services company’s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview at the 23rd National Space Symposium here that the near-term, international space station-based manufacturing opportunities Spacehab has in mind do not require prolonged research and development to bring to market.
“The research has been done. You’ve got some work to do migrating research that’s already been done,” he said.
In a press release Spacehab issued later in the day, Pickens is quoted saying that in-space manufacturing is “a natural next step” for a company with Spacehab’s experience preparing and packaging science experiments for flight aboard the space shuttle and space station.
“Spacehab’s entrepreneurial energy and unique capabilities bring to the equation exactly what is needed to make the leap from science to the manufacturing of valuable products that have the potential to save and improve lives,” Pickens said in the release.
Spacehab’s announcement comes at a time the company is struggling to return to profitability and to get its stock back above $1 a share to avoid being de-listed from the Nasdaq Capital Market. Spacehab announced April 4 that it had received a 180-day extension, or until Oct. 1, to meet Nasdaq’s minimum bid price.
Following the announcement, Spacehab’s stock closed at 63 cents, down 1.55 percent on a volume of 75,860 shares and remained unchanged at the end of trading April 11. Several space investors and former NASA officials who heard about Spacehab’s new focus or read the release were skeptical of the company’s claims, noting that past looks at commercial opportunities involving manufacturing aboard the international space station (ISS) found few if any product ideas that could be brought to market without at least several years of intensive research and development.
Still, some of these sources — and others– said that Pickens has a good reputation on Wall Street that could play to Spacehab’s advantage.
Pickens said Spacehab would reveal more details of its business plan April 16 at the Space Investors Summit in New York, sponsored in part by the Space Frontier Foundation, an advocacy organization that champions entrepreneurial zeal over bureaucratic process.
But Pickens was adamant that there was money for Spacehab to make in the next two or three years manufacturing pure substrates for the next generation of microchip and what he would only describe as “life-saving pharmaceuticals” using automated processes aboard the space station. “These things we are chasing can not be done on Earth,” he said.
Pickens said he believed the timing was right to pursue manufacturing ventures on board the space station, noting that after nearly nine years of construction, the station is ready to transition to its intended utilization phase. Also working in Spacehab’s favor, he said, is the fair amount of vacant rack space on station, the result of NASA canceling or deferring research-oriented projects that would have filled that rack space with various automated equipment. “There’s a bunch of rack space up there looking for something to do,” he said.
As for getting raw materials up to the station and finished product back down, Pickens said he believed there was still mid-deck locker accommodations on the space shuttle Spacehab could use, at least until the shuttle stops flying in 2010. The handful of U.S. companies developing cargo-delivery systems with the hope of selling NASA space station re supply services also could be brought into play, he said. “We have high hopes for [Rocketplane Kistler] and [Space Exploration Technologies]. We think they will be successful,” Pickens said, referring to the two companies sharing $500 million in NASA-funding to demonstrate rival reusable systems capable of delivering cargo to the space station.
But Pickens acknowledged that for the near term, the only sure bet for moving material to and from the space station is the Russian Soyuz. The three-person capsule has room for about 50 kilograms of cargo and is the only station-bound vehicle in service today besides the shuttle that can bring anything back down. Pickens said Spacehab could make money producing and selling the products it has in mind even if it has to pay the full asking price for a Soyuz, which he pegged at $60 million to $70 million, to transport 50 kilograms at a time.
Pickens also said he was not counting on big pharmaceutical companies or microchip makers to underwrite the manufacturing ventures Spacehab has in mind. Rather, he said, Spacehab intends to leverage its relationships with Houston-area universities and create separate subsidiaries for the life sciences and materials opportunities, and go out in 60 to 90 days to raise the needed financing through a combination of public and private placements.
“We’re quite willing to turn Spacehab into a biotech company,” he said.