The Near-Term Potential of Manufacturing in Space
Jan 1, 1980
This article appeared in the GAO Review, Vol. 15, Issue 4, Fall 1980. Aerospace feats have brought economic benefits both directly and indirectly. While direct benefits are significant, the majority of economic gains have been realized through indirect benefits such as solid-state technology. In judging the future potential of space programs, this is an important point for consideration. Programs of the past were not directed toward economic gains, but programs of the future will be. The advent of the space shuttle will bring prospects of manufacturing in space to take advantage of the unique characteristics of space. For space manufacturing to become a reality, much research and development is needed. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is stressing the need to establish a firm scientific basis to better identify the benefits expected from materials processing in space. Industry's partcipation is absolutely essential to the program's success, guiding NASA toward the types of research needed to be done. Only after a solid scientific basis has been established can commercial applications be adequately supported. This is the point at which private industry will begin to consider actively investing in space-related ventures. Because of the uniqueness of materials processing in space, the time from basic research to marketing for products from space will be longer than that for products manufactured on earth. Budget approval is linked to measurable results; and, in this program, results cannot be measured. The number of scientists involved at the basic research end of the spectrum is relatively small compared to other stages of the program. Emphasis on space manufacturing by other countries could lead to technological and economic advantages which will be hard to overcome. Most basic research in the program and part of the developmental and demonstration research will have to be funded by the Federal Government. Private industry is not likely to fund materials processing in space.