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Space Manufacturing

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Perhaps the most often discussed mechanism for achieving a payback from space development is utilization of the microgravity and high-vacuum manufacturing methods that are only possible on a large scale while in orbit. Ranging from pharmaceutical products and exotic metals to computer circuits or even super-round ball bearings, there are expected to be such a tremendous number of products made possible through space manufacturing that this could potentially pay for the whole space program! Although this option is the most often talked about, it's also one that has been the biggest disappointment to date. The disappointment, however, is due to the difficulties in getting to space, not from a lack of return on the experiments performed. By making large-scale access to space a reality, we can expect to enjoy a significant profit from making space manufacturing a reality.

Manufacturing electronic components outside of the Earth's gravity well, in the super-clean environment of free space's high vacuum, will yield devices with characteristics only dreamed about by system developers today. Larger crystal wafers, free from gravitationally-induced distortions during their manufacture, will make possible larger integrated circuits, with more functionality on one device than we can put in an entire system today. Imagine, for example, a clipboard computer that recognizes characters as you write them on its surface, translates the commands you enter, and produces final engineering drawings as rapidly as you can sketch. Sufficient memory to store several images at a time could be built into such a device, along with the technology to display the images in minute detail. We can see hints of this sort of product in various stages of development here on Earth, but the microminiaturization necessary to reduce such a product to a hand-held device will probably not be available from terrestrial manufacturing facilities.

Companies manufacturing tomorrow's pharmaceutical products will be able to benefit from establishing their manufacturing facilities at a space colony, for several reasons: On one hand, security will be much easier in such a location, reducing the possibility of sabotaging a product line, and lowering the risk of accidental introduction of dangerous components or byproducts into the general environment. In addition, several processes impossible here on Earth because of the gravity we live under will be trivial exercises in orbit. Producing many types of homogeneous solutions is very difficult today because of the different densities of their components, for example. Given a laboratory in space, firms interested in these methods will be able to produce wonder drugs to cure vast numbers of diseases that cause much of the human suffering we encounter today.

In a similar way, manufacturers will be able to produce metals and other materials with characteristics that would amaze and confound some of the most respected researchers of the recent past. Consider as well how ball bearings are often made: Molten metal is broken to droplets by a screen, which cool and solidify as they fall through a tower, to be collected below. A liquid without gravitational distortion will naturally form a sphere to minimize its surface area, which is a condition the droplets experience as they fall and cool. One major problem with this method, however, is that the droplets must be falling through the atmosphere, encountering wind resistance, which inevitably distorts their shape from round. The variations may be small, but a manufacturer based in space would be able to produce better ball bearings simply because his could stay in one place as they cooled, encountering no distorting wind resistance. Another materials problem is similar to one encountered by pharmaceutical firms: Different component densities make some solutions impractical to manufacture on Earth because of gravitational separation. A space colony based manufacturer would be able to circumvent that problem: There are effectively no gravitational effects to contend with in orbit.


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