US Space Company Makes
History With Client from China
August 24, 2017
Imagine a post office for space. That is the job of U.S. space
company NanoRacks. Just down the street from NASA’s Johnson
Space Center in Houston, NanoRacks is one of many companies
benefitting from the U.S. space program’s support for a broader
range of commercial interests.
“There has been a shift in federal funding into more of this
commercial space transportation program,” said David Alexander,
director of the Rice Space Institute and professor of physics
and astronomy at Rice University in Houston.
“What that has allowed these companies to do is essentially have
an anchor client, an anchor customer and then build up their
manifest and build up their client base and think of lots of new
ways of accessing space for many different purposes,” Alexander
The space business
For a price, NanoRacks can help almost anyone, anywhere send an
experiment or small satellite to the International Space Station
in orbit around the Earth. The company made history this summer
with a client from China.
“We’re all about democratizing access to space. It’s really
important to me that we involve as many nations as possible,”
NanoRacks Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Manber said.
The company has helped deliver space experiments and satellites
of customers from 30 countries, including academic institutions
in Eastern Europe, Peru and Vietnam.
The Beijing Institute of Technology, one of NanoRacks’ latest
customers, became the first from China to have an experiment
brought onboard the International Space station.
“They’re doing an experiment on DNA and how it mutates in
microgravity,” Michael Lewis, chief technology officer of
The research operation in China did not respond to VOA’s request
for an interview, but NanoRacks’ Manber said findings from the
Chinese experiment could have groundbreaking implications.
“They’ve shown abnormal results when DNA is subjected to space.
That could mean, we can’t travel to Mars,” Manber said.
Getting Chinese experiment to ISS
Getting the Chinese experiment to the International Space
Station was complicated because U.S. federal law prohibits NASA
from working directly with China because of fears the Chinese
could steal U.S. technology.
“First we brought it to the Obama administration. They were very
concerned there was no ties to the People’s Liberation Army,”
After two years, NanoRacks received approval from U.S.
A statement from NASA said, “NASA complied with all legal
requirements to notify the Congress of this activity, and all of
the ISS (International Space Station) partners approved the
inclusion of the experiment from the Beijing Institute of
However, there was one stipulation.
“We had to make sure that there was no technology transfer. No
IT connection to the space station,” Lewis said. “We had a
creative solution. We said, ‘OK, we’ll make sure that we plug in
the experiment, and it’s not even connected data wise,’” he
said the self-contained autonomous Chinese experiment flew to
the International Space Station on the SpaceX CRS-11 Dragon
spacecraft. The experiment received only power from the space
station and spent about three weeks there before returning to
“On the science side, a lot of us scientists would welcome the
partnerships. There’re other issues we don’t think about. Much
of the Chinese space program is done through the military and
the technology development they have gone through in the last
few years, again, have been very successful,” Alexander said.
Aside from national security concerns, scientists and businesses
are pushing for more international collaboration in space.
“You can’t do deep space exploration alone. The American
government cannot do it without the American private sector, and
America cannot do it without international colleagues. It’s too
expensive. It’s too longer term,” Alexander said.