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Nanoracks Creates an International Space Station Business Revolution

Business featured Open Hardware

NanoracksNanoracks provides affordable zero gravity research on the International Space Station that anyone can purchase. They are also the first company in the world to own and market hardware on the International Space Station. They launched on STS-131 using their credit cards and a mantra of four simple facts. They would always be commercial, always be open source, use standardized hardware and take advantage of miniaturization. Accessing space (and the ISS) has been difficult and expensive in the past, fortunately Nanoracks is changing that without inventing new technology. Instead, they act as a “Concierge to the stars” as their websites states. Customers purchase space on one of their research platforms and provides a payload built to meet Nanoracks guidelines (Guidelines are based on the Cubesat Standard). Nanoracks takes care of the rest, including:
  • Two hours of payload development consultation (per 1U)
  • Handling all the paperwork
  • Handling the safety review
  • Launch to the space station
  • Installing and running the experiment
  • Electronic transfer of data
Additional services include:
  • Additional consulting hours on payload development
  • Physical data return
  • Missions longer than 30 days
  • Insurance
  • Custom payload requests
You can also launch cubesats directly from the ISS

Commercial-New Way of Doing Business

Failure is okay, you learn things from failure. When Nanoracks first said that to NASA, they didn’t quite understand that concept. The Fisher Institute of Israel did a stem cell and cancer cell project that didn’t work the first time. What happened? They flew another experiment. It’s a whole new way of thinking. Commercial businesses handle failure all the time, and now Nanoracks is taking that ability to the ISS. Another example of use is NASA prioritizes payloads. They spend a lot of time deciding which payload will go on the manifest based on the order of perceived importance. Is the ant colony experiment more important than the spiderweb experiment. That kind of thing. How does Nanoracks decide? Basically whether or not your check cleared. The best way to efficiently use any system is to attach a commercial business model to it. So who exactly uses Nanoracks? Over 30 school districts in the US have flown complex biological payloads in partnership with NCESSE and with zero NASA funding. They’ve flown about 50 payloads in 18 months and have over 80 payloads under contract. NASA also allowed them to install a platform on the outside of the ISS. This allows them to expose experiments to the vacuum of space and even launch cubesats. It’s important to note that Nanoracks is self funded, they don’t take any money from NASA. In fact, NASA acts as a customer rather than an arbiter of how it “should be done”. Because the company has their own money on the line, NASA has taken a much more “hands off” approach. They realize that Nanoracks has their own money and reputation on the line and is going to do everything the can to get it right. Imagine that, capitalism as the ultimate motivator. And because Nanoracks is open source, people come to them with ideas.

The Benefits of Standardized Hardware

Valley-Christian-Nanoracks-PayloadWhen Nanoracks first started, they wanted to use a form factor that was known throughout the world. This is why they use the Cubesat standard, a 10 centimeter cube used to build small student satellites. Using standard hardware reduces complexity for the customer and provides more options for the experiments. Imagine if every PC maker had their own standard, there is no way computers would be as cheap as they are now. International customers from Vietnam to Saudi Arabia have launched experiments with the company because of this. From contract signing to flying hardware is 9 months on average. One interesting customer was Valley Christian High School in San Jose, in Silicon Valley (Payload pictured above). They became the first high school to pay their own way to the International Space Station. The students created such a sophisticated circuit board and experiment that the NASA safety review couldn’t quite grasp that the work was done by high school students. This is why Open Source is so powerful. Lowering the barriers makes it possible for more people to participate and you never know where the next great invention is going to come from. This way thinking has been accepted in software and computers for years now, yet we’re just finally getting there when it comes to space. Nanoracks is part of the new revolution showing that if you apply standard commercial practices, work closely with the new NASA...good things will happen. As long as you can get past the safety tests a lot of people will come forward to help you. They now have three platforms on the ISS all self financed. Realizing they didn’t have a centrifuge they found one in museum that had flown on the shuttle 5 times. Instead of building a new one, they pulled it out of the museum. You don’t have to reinvent hardware and it doesn’t have to be perfect. This is a really exciting time and while it’s easy to get jaded because things move slowly. But things are happening. NASA is no longer a competitor, instead they are a landlord. The regulate the industry and provide help when necessary. If you're interested in performing research on the space station, you can check out Nanoracks website for more information.

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