The commercialization of space is upon us. Companies already are already planning to set up space habitats on the moon and drill its surface for ice to make rocket fuel, while the likes of Amazon and Virgin are gearing up to provide space cruises for tourists.

Space Tango, a three-person startup based in Lexington, Kentucky, is also trying to get into this game by offering what it calls Space as a Service. The company is aiming to send customers' payloads up to the International Space Station for experiments in zero gravity.

Next March, Space Tango expects to load a fully automated lab, which will be filled with 20 experiments, onto a Space X rocket and send it to the ISS for installation. By the end of 2016, the company hopes to have conducted 60 experiments for its customers over three trips, ranging from high school class experiments to pharmaceutical research for public companies. Once on the ISS, the automated lab will stream video and data down to Earth so customers can watch and manipulate their experiments in real time using Space Tango's software and hardware.

Founded in 2010 by CEO Twyman Clements, who is a space systems engineer, and chairman Kris Kimel, Space Tango is the commercial arm of nonprofit company Kentucky Space LLC. The parent company, founded solely by Kimel, holds a coveted Space Act Agreement from NASA, essentially a ticket to do business on the International Space Station's national laboratory. There are many types of Space Act Agreements, but getting one is an arduous, years-long process. Only four other companies have the same type of agreement as Space Tango. (Companies such as GE, Lockheed Martin, and Amazon have made other types of agreements.) Because it has the agreement and has passed NASA's safety reviews, Space Tango does not have to pay SpaceX for use of the rocket.

Space Tango helps its customers design experiments that fit into tissue box-size containers, which then slide into the 23-inch-by-18-inch automated lab. The tiny lab is a powerful and versatile modular platform that allows for different attachments to be connected depending on the experiments on board. Experiments might require robotic arms, gantry systems with pipetting equipment, or watering systems with LED lights for plants. The kicker is that the lab requires "minimal astronaut intervention," Clements says, and can run 12 different experiments simultaneously.

"Customers will be able to check in and manage their experiments with an ease like updating their Facebook or Twitter profile," Clements says. "Up until now, doing experiments has only been accessible to people in the space industry. We are going to change that."

A new frontier

Space Tango's founders say zero gravity, or "microgravity" as they call it, holds tremendous promise for technological and biomedical breakthroughs. When you remove a living organism from the force of gravity, strange things happen, Kimel says. The biological and communication systems for cells become scrambled, and organisms and systems act differently. For example, in a previous experiment, which Kentucky Space conducted with the University of Rome and Morehead State University in 2011, the team found that brain cancer cells died in microgravity.  

"We do not know why the glioblastoma cells died, but now we are diving into why that happened," says Kimel of that experiment, which was carried out by astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. "This is what this whole thing is about--going to a new frontier and asking a lot of fundamental questions."

The majority of microgravity studies have focused on how astronauts' bodies function in space. But Space Tango believes there's a lot more to discover about how living systems and diseases operate outside of gravity. After two years of terrestrial research, the founders became convinced that treatments for cancer, diabetes, and neuro-degenerative diseases, or at the very least a new understanding of them, are floating around in space.

To infinity and beyond

How does a three-person startup manage to send an automated lab to the ISS?

In 2005, when NASA announced it would begin retiring the space shuttle program, private companies and other nations started entering the industry to haul payloads to the ISS. With the emergence of low-cost, high-performing technology such as chips, sensors, and batteries--much of it used in most smartphones--sending things into space became cheaper and more feasible. Kentucky Space began designing and building cubesats, or mini cube-size satellites for educational purposes and scientific research. In 2010, the organization got its first Space Act Agreement and started to contract with companies working with the International Space Station. Kentucky Space helped build two different labs for the ISS and conducted medical experiments as well as research on how off-the-shelf technology works in space. The company now has launched satellites and experiments from the U.S., Russia, and Japan.

Kimel has launched another arm of Kentucky Space, Exomedicine, an R&D organization that's exploring medical applications stemming from the company's research on diseases in microgravity. "We believe we will be bioengineering new products and medicines in space that would be brought back to earth and used as interventions for patients here, whether it be organic, pharmaceuticals, or something else," Kimel says.

Space Tango's prices vary, but complicated biopharma experiments can cost from $20,000 to $40,000. The company also offers less expensive services (around $5,000) in exchange for a 1 percent slice of the intellectual property. So far the company has signed up 50 customers for 2016. Clements declined to give many details due to nondisclosure agreements, but says it will revisit past experiments like one that Kentucky Space conducted with Tufts University, which explored how flatworms regenerate in space. 

From that unusual study, to sustainable food models, to cancer treatments, Space Tango sees a tremendous variety of potential applications. "We absolutely believe that there is knowledge to be discovered in microgravity that will save people's lives," Kimel says. "You go to space because you will see things that you will never see on Earth."

Published on: Nov 5, 2015