ZBLAN is different. Not for NASA Discovered in the 1970s, ZBLAN is strange and bizarre material. A type of glass composed of heavy metal fluorides instead of the typical silica, it has absorption and scattering properties that could make it suitable for high-end lasers and even underwater Internet cables. But the material is fragile and due to the different density of its constituent elements, it develops microcrystals while cooling, destroying its potential. On Earth, ZBLAN manufacturers make large installations that place molten glass beads on multiple stories by pulling the material into threads. But for now, microgravity offers the best environment to prevent partitioning and avoid expensive crystallization. The U.S. Air Force first tested the hypothesis in the 1
Made in Space has already sent its ZBLAN microwave laboratory to past SpaceX shots. Unlike a typical production facility, where a machine loads and recharges with its starting materials, it makes more trips. Previous materials are pre-loaded into the laboratory; when the cable is finished, the astronauts send the machine back to Earth with the finished fiber inside. "We're trying to be respectful of the time astronauts have," says Rush. "They take it out, include power and data, and set sail." (In the future, the company plans to install the production facility in orbit so that only the material rises and falls.) The project remains in the study phase, producing only small amounts of fiber, but Rush says he plans to launch a larger facility next year that can produce enough ZBLAN to sell to customers.
Even with high startup and return costs, orbital math works, says Rush. One kilogram of material can produce thousands of meters of ZBLAN, and each meter sells for more than $ 100. The company says it has invested millions in ZBLAN development, none of which comes from NASA.
"Ultimately, this cannot be avoided," says Rush. "And even if it does, you can't build something with one foundation." Made in Space plans to release four to six other payloads next year to test other materials that can benefit from microgravity production.
For Bridenstein another unused activity is the manufacture of medicines. Last month, NASA launched the Union for Industrial Biomedicine at the University of Pittsburgh. Medical research is now a major component of what the ISS does, but the idea, says Bill Wagner, director of the Pittsburgh MacGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is to find business models to excite investors. The materials are the farthest away – the Institute is already experimenting with ISS with degradable metal alloys useful for coronary stents. There is also excitement that microgravity can delay differentiation in stem cells, expanding the experiment window, and that the disease-causing effects of microgravity can make the ISS an attractive place to test drugs using so-called organs on a chip instead of humans.  However, the commercialization of drugs and devices requires a large investment – hundreds of millions of dollars in support, say, in a clinical trial – and research is still emerging. Wagner thinks this kind of money will take some time to drain; The union, he said, is in the process of gathering ideas that may start to intrigue larger investors. "I may not make a big bet on the dollar, but I would like to keep this place on the table," he says.
George Washington's Herzfeld is not convinced that NASA's plans have legs; the attempt to launch space production dates back to the end of the Reagan era. But there are several reasons for optimism, he says. One is that ZBLAN's plans include upgrading a product that is already on the Earth's market rather than trying to generate demand from scratch. Then there's the nascent orbiting economy: companies that are already involved in launching and transporting ISS payloads and designing equipment and robots. Plus, there are satellite support and tourism opportunities that can help justify a stable human presence in orbit.