Not even two years into its existence, orbital fuel supply startup Orbit Fab has chalked up a big win — successfully supplying the International Space Station with water, a first for any private company. It’s a big deal, because providing water to the ISS involved a multi-day refueling process, done in microgravity, using processes and equipment Orbit Fab developed itself.
The key ingredient here, per ISS U.S. National Laboratory COO Kenneth Shields, which was the contracting agency for Orbit Fab’s refueling test, is that this method of resupply is totally out of spec in terms of how this process was designed to work on the ISS. By creating and successfully demonstrating a system that the ISS designers never conceived, Orbit Fab has shown that both private companies and NASA have the flexibility needed to build business models on existing space infrastructure.
The technology Orbit Fab developed and demonstrated has broader applications than just moving water around in space. Water was used in this example specifically because it’s one of the most inert propellants used in spaceflight thrusters, but the methods could extend to other common propellants, and make it possible to refuel satellites in orbit. Orbit Fab is working toward establishing standards for satellite refueling interfaces to be used in orbital hardware, which could go a long way toward making it common practice to develop reusable satellites, instead of sticking with the more or less disposable hardware model used today.
Startups like Orbit Fab are the key to unlocking true commercialization of space, by identifying points in the value chain where innovation or improvement can lead to cost or resource efficiencies and ensure that space business is actually also viable business, in terms of profit potential.