The final (commercial) frontier: A new space infrastructure startup called "ThinkOrbital" wants to boldly go where no manufacturing corporation has gone before — low-Earth orbit. It aims to construct a space station for manufacturing various commercial products. It says the platform can also recycle space junk.
Former SpaceX exec Lee Rosen co-founded ThinkOrbital last year to develop commercial space station applications. Rosen previously served as vice president of mission and launch operations at SpaceX. He has worked as ThinkOrbital's chief strategy officer since its founding and was appointed company president last week. He recently revealed details about the startup and its plans.
ThinkObital's flagship is the ThinkPlatform — a large facility in low-earth orbit that Rosen claims companies can use to manufacture goods, including high-speed computer chips, fiber optics, and pharmaceutical products. Supposedly, companies have not manufactured products in space because there is no place to do it. ThinkOrbital wants to fill that void.
"The reason why in-space manufacturing doesn't exist on a large scale is because there's nowhere to do it," Rosen told Space News. "They just don't have the room on the International Space Station to do all of the things that could be done."
Rosen also says that the facility could help to clean up orbital debris. The ThinkPlatform will have autonomous satellites that can retrieve aluminum space junk and bring it back to the facility to process it into aluminum dust, which can be used as fuel. The platform could also "deorbit" defunct satellites.
"We're working on a hub and spoke concept where smaller satellites would go out and gather the debris, bring it back to a central location, process it, and we could either turn them into fuel or deorbit them," said Rosen. "We could process debris at that hub, for example, and turn aluminum into aluminum powder that could be used for spacecraft fuel."
Funding for the project has been slow going. ThinkOrbital's platform concept recently lost its share of a $415.6 million pool of NASA grant money. The space agency is looking to build a permanent space station to replace the ISS when it is retired in 2030. NASA felt that Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman had better ideas for building an orbital infrastructure.
However, ThinkOrbital hasn't given up. It recently won two research contracts from the US Space Force's Orbital Prime program worth $260,000. The initiative awards solutions that offer in-space servicing, manufacturing, and assembly, which is ThinkOrbital's primary mission.
Conveniently, the ThinkPlatform concept is flexible enough to fill just about any orbital niche. If the demand is there, it could be outfitted to provide other functions such as human habitation and military applications. For now, the focus is on engineering it to autonomously self-assemble. It is no easy task, but ThinkOrbital has a plan as demonstrated in the video below. Rosen proposes that the station be built remotely with robotics using electron beam welding, which the USSR proved could work for constructing in space decades ago.
"The good news is we don't have to bend any physics to make it happen. In-space electron beam welding was demonstrated by the Soviets in the 80s, so we know it works," Rosen explained. "We want to do an inflight demo so we have the data ourselves. But we're confident that it works."
The only thing lacking, for now, is a timeline. If ThinkOrbital has a schedule in mind, Rosen didn't share it. Presumably, the company would want to have something up there before the International Space Station goes offline in 2030, but what that presence would be is unclear. It's unlikely any contractors will have a working space station within the next seven years.
However, more funding opportunities could bring some solidified plans. Rosen indicated that the company is in the running for the next round of Orbital Prime funding, which could be worth up to $1.5 million.
"We hope to be able to work with the Space Force as one of the organizations that are interested in in-space manufacturing," Rosen said.