“When we talk about future cities in space, it seems like they’re really far away. The truth is, it’s happening right now. We’re building those.” That’s the mind-blowing reality that Jana Stoudemire works in everyday at Axiom Space, a leading space infrastructure developer based in Texas. Axiom is building a successor to the International Space Station and developing commercial opportunities in orbit that go way beyond satellites. Central to all this is the unique environment of microgravity, which allows you to do things that just can’t be done on earth.
On this episode, Jana takes us to the final frontier, and shares Axiom’s plans for advanced biomedical research, space-made semiconductors that could enable quantum computing, and what this means for future scientific advances. She’ll also get into the challenges of building a state-of-the-art lab that will orbit around the earth, from the equipment and personnel, to where does that exercise bike go?
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Jana Stoudemire: Our definition of global today includes just earth, but really we’re expanding that definition of global to include 250 miles up.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Janice Stoudemire. She’s the director of in-space manufacturing at Axiom Space. Axiom is building a successor to the International Space Station and developing commercial opportunities that go way beyond satellites. Axiom is exploring research and manufacturing opportunities in orbit and central to it all is what you can do in microgravity you just can’t do on earth.
Jana Stoudemire: Cells respond differently, the way that they aggregate gene expression for materials. There’s things like no sedimentation, no convection driven buoyancy, so you can form things in microgravity that can’t really be formed here on the ground.
Dan Blumberg: And that has implications for many industries, including a potential future where cutting edge computer chips are built in space.
Jana Stoudemire: The ability to think that we might even make materials that can help us to advance quantum computing here on earth is something that I think really will change the paradigm of technology in the future.
Dan Blumberg: On this episode, we join Jana at the final frontier, and she shares Axiom’s plans for space made semiconductors, advanced biomedical research and what it’s like to plan and build a state-of-the-art lab that will orbit around the earth. We also talk about things that once upon a time were the realm of science fiction.
Jana Stoudemire: When we talk about future cities in space, it seems like they’re really far away. The truth is, it’s happening right now. We’re building those.
Dan Blumberg: Welcome to Crafted, a show about great products and the people who make them. I’m your host, Dan Blumberg. I’m a product and engagement leader at Artium where my colleagues and I help companies build incredible products, recruit high performing teams, and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. Before she made the leap into space, Jana spent years in pharmaceutical research and development.
Jana Stoudemire: I worked on human recombinant growth hormones in the early ’90s and not necessarily in favor quite yet. I worked on tissue engineering products that were first in kind as well as first in kind medical devices, so coded vascular grafts, had the opportunity to work on neurogenic drug development, all kinds of areas that were really leading edge science. And after a couple decades, I heard the word innovation many times and it just didn’t seem like it was very innovative. We were using kind of the same tools and approaches and I heard about research and microgravity and it really made me stop and think about a different way to think about science.
Dan Blumberg: About 10 years ago, Jana joined the Center for the Advancement of Science and Space, which manages all of the research on the International Space Station, and then two years ago she joined Axiom Space.
SFX: Ignition. Stop. [inaudible 00:02:57]. God speed. Axiom [inaudible 00:02:57].
Jana Stoudemire: The opportunity to have build the world’s first commercial space station and have a blank piece of paper to kind of put the platforms in place that are going to support those future economies in space is really exciting.
Dan Blumberg: Can you just share what stage is Axiom at right now in terms of what’s been done? What’s coming up next?
Jana Stoudemire: So in 2020, Axiom was awarded exclusive use of a docking ring on the International Space Station. So our plan is to attach the first module to the ISS in 2026. We will then add additional modules that will allow crew quarters, research, future in space manufacturing, research and manufacturing facilities, as well as power and thermal capabilities so that by the end of the decade, as the ISS is decommissioned, we’ll actually transition to a free flying commercial space station.
Dan Blumberg: You said you were drawn to microgravity. I mean, that’s really at the heart of so much what we’re going to talk about. What is so special about microgravity?
Jana Stoudemire: So when you think about taking gravity out of an equation and gravity is in a lot of the equations that we work with both on the physical science and material science side as well as the impact to biology, and it’s hard to imagine removing that from the equation because it’s a part of our everyday lives. But when you take gravity out, the possibilities are endless. Cells respond differently, the way that they aggregate the shape of the cell, gene expression for materials, there’s things like no sedimentation, no convection driven buoyancy, so you can form things in microgravity that can’t really be formed here on the ground.
Dan Blumberg: So Axiom is a private company, right? Building a successor to the ISS, which is a multi government funded space station, and I know that Axiom is looking for a sustainable business model where private enterprises and governments will pay to use the space station. Do some of the research you were just talking about. Can you tell us more about that unique challenge and what it means to create a space marketplace?
Jana Stoudemire: Sure. I mean, one of the things that’s really intriguing about Axiom is that through our private astronaut missions and our commercial space station, we really offer access to anyone, many nations around the world, even those that don’t have their own space program, right? Space is now accessible to everyone. When you think about the International Space Station, it took several countries to build that. It’s going to take several countries to build the commercial space economy as well. And so the opportunities that we have now by having this not be government associated but commercially associated means that the access now is open to everyone. The commercial space economy today is really built on earth observation and communications. So satellite markets, we can do some of those things on the Axiom Station as well, and lots of national security kinds of applications can be done through that vantage point.
In addition, there’s new markets in space assembly and manufacturing, so making things in space that stay in space as well as orbital data centers, right? Things that are communications reliant, but give us the opportunity to do things like edge computing and certainly maybe even quantum at some point. Applications that we’ve worked on, so our Axiom 2 Mission that was just conducted in May of this year, we actually had three payloads on there that were related to in-space manufacturing of biomedical applications, one on stem cells, one on thick tissues and one on DNA inspired nanomaterials. So from the perspective of being able to make products that benefit life on earth, we’re very excited to start working on some of those applications. DNA inspired nanomaterials from a biomedical application standpoint, it’s a really fun technology because when you think about delivery systems for things like vaccines or even gene therapy in the future, we still have challenges with the systems that we use here on earth.
If we can take the approach of a DNA inspired molecule that actually forms without gravity attaching to any of those forces that allow you to build longer chains, load drug more efficiently, we potentially have products that are going to be much more homogeneous, much more consistent and much more effective. We’re really looking for products that we can make in space that we couldn’t make here on the ground. We kind of call this the decade of results because we’re leveraging everything we’ve learned about physical systems, biological systems, how they change in microgravity, and looking at where are the things in industry that are holding us back and how can microgravity help us to make products that really can address those challenges.
Dan Blumberg: One of those products is bulk crystals for semiconductors.
Jana Stoudemire: The wafers that are made that semiconductors are printed on, so when you make those, you start with a crystal and the crystal when you make it here on earth because of unevenness in heating, things like sedimentation that exist in gravity, you get defects in those crystals. So there’s a very high scrap rate. When you’re thinking about a microgravity environment, growing a perfect crystal that reduces that scrap rate really changes the game. Surface tension and microgravity is quite strong, and so in some cases that can be problematic. If you’re working on a biological experiment and you get a bubble, that bubble’s not going to move, so that’s a problem.
But when you’re thinking about making thin layers and thin film deposition, that surface tension is key and it allows you to do things that you can’t do here on the earth at a molecular level. So when we start thinking about the changes that we can make in materials that will be used in those semiconductors to help us with processing and computing power and maybe cooler materials that don’t heat up quite so fast, those are all the areas that right now we’re really focused from an advanced material standpoint.
Obviously, we have things like the CHIPS Act and it’s a national priority as well, so leveraging the environment of microgravity to allow us to address some of those challenges that we face here terrestrially, create those new materials and even think about beyond where we are with edge computing and demonstrations of edge computing have been done on station by Hewlett Packard and Quantinuum and all kinds of companies already, but the ability to think that we might even make materials that can help us to advance quantum computing here on earth is something that I think really will change the paradigm of technology in the future.
Dan Blumberg: Yeah, I’m very aware of the CHIPS Act. I live in the Hudson Valley, IBM country and not far from me is a facility that once upon a time had 11,000 IBMers building semiconductors and chips. How much have you thought about scaling efforts in space?
Jana Stoudemire: Absolutely. The ability on the Axiom Station will have more volume to be able to develop manufacturing systems, but when you really think about commercial scale production, you’re absolutely right. And in fact, I usually, when people talk about the fact that, well, Axiom is building a commercial space station and there’s three others or maybe four now, more people keep coming into the mix of developing commercial platforms. When we find those manufacturing applications, we’re going to need every one of those commercial platforms because the ability for us to be able to produce in volume to supply commercial demand is what the future really holds for all of those commercial platforms. We also think about when we’re manufacturing the products that are maybe small in volume that allow us to produce thousands at a time in space, those are the products that are probably going to be the first products that you see developed in that environment. It’s partly because of the space limitations and also because they’re high value.
Dan Blumberg: Yeah, you’re saying high value and basically talking about supply chains in space. I’m just interested in the security considerations that have to go into this now.
Jana Stoudemire: Yes. I guess on two levels, one, there’s national security and as some of the defense applications or even some of the materials applications that will be related to that obviously need to be protected. And so as we think about opening the station to all countries, there’s considerations there obviously as we think about developing those kinds of materials and applications. When we think about it from an IP perspective as well, commercial companies are going to be working up there. So segregating and separating those facilities to be able to maintain those competitive advantages for companies that are working in that environment, that’s going to be an important component as well.
Dan Blumberg: When you meet with potential customers who might want to do research or build things in space and you talk to them about the benefits of building a microgravity, what is the thing that makes their eyes really light up?
Jana Stoudemire: I like to talk about the analogy that is used in pharma a lot is that if you’re looking for something and you’re in a dark room and you have just a small flashlight, you’re only going to see what’s in that circle in the small flashlight, and you may not find your keys if you’ve lost them by just looking to the left, but if you flip the lights on and you see them right there to the right, you just found what you were looking for. Microgravity is a bit like that. It sort of turns the lights on in the room. Traditionally, the way that we’re trained to think about science is not what happens in microgravity. When you start to talk to people about how science changes and how differently you could approach making products or addressing the challenges that we have here on the ground, and I think for me, one of the most fascinating parts of working with really phenomenal scientists and leading manufacturers is that once they start to see how different it is, they change their whole perspective on even the questions that they ask.
Dan Blumberg: Can you paint a picture for us? So if you’re trying to do research, say molecular research like you were talking about, and you’re in space, I imagine there’s an astronaut in space, this is not robots doing this in space or there’s people in space. Are they working together in isolation? Are they also communicating with researchers back on earth? What does it actually look like in practice?
Jana Stoudemire: Sure. Well, we have some automated systems that are used on the space station right now. We also do a lot of crew tended research, and in this discovery phase, it’s really important to have astronaut hands in that process. So when we work on station right now, the experiments that we design, astronauts are trained before they go up. They know what the procedures are that we need them to do. While they’re doing them on orbit, we’re talking right through the experiment so that if there’s anything that they see to make a slight adjustment to, we can do that.
Dan Blumberg: Axiom is building state-of-the-art tools that will enable iterative research on the station. This means they could experiment with things like tumor treatments, making adjustments to their methods while they’re still in the mission. And this is why getting trained scientists into space is a crucial part of Axiom’s vision.
Jana Stoudemire: Private astronaut missions open up the door to scientist astronauts flying in the future as well, and at some point we do see that we’ll have scientists with us that will be up there, that will be trained experts in their field. We’re very lucky on our Axiom 2 Mission. We had Peggy Whitson as our commander who is just phenomenal. I mean, she is a trained biochemist and she knows how to work in the glove box and do life science research, but it’d be fantastic to even have someone that we can take from one of our leading institutions here on the ground, have them doing that research on station themselves.
Dan Blumberg: What were one or two things that Peggy Whitson said after her recent trip?
Jana Stoudemire: Boy, the science was amazing, and I think that for her to be able to accomplish as much as we accomplished in that mission and to be back in space again, and to want to go back to space, to realize that that is a home and that is part of her home and who she is, I mean, we made the first DNA inspired nanomaterials on the mission. We did the first steps towards reprogramming stem cells. We took a look at thick tissues and vascularization in those thick tissues. We took tumor organoids up and we basically dosed them to see if we could find drugs that might be in development that would show us that they could be potential future therapies. So I think for her, the ability to be back in space and to be doing that kind of really important science was just a highlight of the mission.
Dan Blumberg: What’s it been like building a lab in space?
Jana Stoudemire: I have a picture in one of my presentations of here’s a lab on earth and here’s the ISS and the ISS, people have lived there for 22 years. Sometimes it’s not always the most efficient in terms of the way that we use our spaces, but we take every space that we can get. So perfect example, we have a microscope on orbit that is a Keyence microscope. It’s quite a nice microscope. It actually happens to be right next to the exercise bike, which is not necessarily the best place to put a microscope. But because we don’t have the ability to really design or redesign the International Space Station like we will when we have the Axiom Station, we can put state-of-the-art capabilities together in a state-of-the-art lab and have the opportunity to have the exercise equipment at the other end of the module.
Dan Blumberg: Yeah, paint a picture for us if you could. There’s not an exercise bike, that much I’ve got in my picture. So what does the lab look like? What are… Obviously there’s special considerations so things don’t float away. I’d love to see it a little bit better.
Jana Stoudemire: Well, and actually working in a glove box on orbit is a little different than working in a glove box here on the ground. Astronauts have footholds to hold them in place while they’re working under those conditions in the glove box. We also have a lot of Velcro and tape that we use to tape things down because they do tend to float away. And for us, we’d like to have sort of the human factors state-of-the-art, the glove box is next to the incubator, is next to the freezer, is next to the microscope. So if you can imagine a lab today that is state-of-the-art on the ground, that’s what we’d like to produce on the Axiom Station.
Dan Blumberg: And are you prototyping that now on earth? Can you share a little bit more of how you’ve made changes along the way before you send it up?
Jana Stoudemire: As a matter of fact, we just had a module delivered to Houston that is actually could be configured as our research and manufacturing facility. And so we have the ability on the ground to be looking at those systems right now, designing them as efficiently as we possibly can. So when we talk about the biomedical products, really to be able to produce those on orbit and have them for use in people here on earth, we need to manufacture them under good manufacturing practice capabilities. From the perspective of engineering, the feet of engineering, just to build a space station is amazing, but when you start thinking about the things that go inside of it, there’s additional complexity.
Dan Blumberg: What are some of the things that come to mind when you say that?
Jana Stoudemire: Well, when I think about how we’re building even our environmental control and life support systems or our avionic systems, when the station was built in 1998, we certainly didn’t have the type of technology that we do today. We’re also looking at how do we use parts that are common in the industry, not common to space, and make them available to be used in that space environment. So as we think about the entire, how do you build something that is human rated, all of the state-of-the-art equipment that goes into those pieces is also translated into the capabilities that we’ll need for things like in space manufacturing or our orbital data centers.
Dan Blumberg: Maybe you’re still working this out, but how will it work when there’s the lab and the manufacturing capability at Axiom? How will firms book time or have their research plan approved and so that they can get to use this incredible facility that you’re building?
Jana Stoudemire: Access, infrastructure and capabilities are the things that are going to drive the demand for that commercial market. So when we think about the things that are going to allow us to be sustainable in microgravity, it’s really going to be those first applications that help us to generate revenue, to be able to keep the lights on in the space station. And when you think about all of the commercial models in space so far, really there has to be a business case to allow you to do that. So while we support all of those opportunities in the early stages, it’s going to be really important for us to pick the ones that are most economically sustainable.
Dan Blumberg: What’s sort of long-term impact that this kind of manufacturing, this kind of research can have in microgravity?
Jana Stoudemire: When I think about what the future looks like for us, it’s amazing because our definition of global today includes just earth, but really we’re expanding that definition of global to include 250 miles up. When we talk about future cities in space, it seems like they’re really far away. The truth is it’s happening right now. We’re building those, and as we think about the types of products and types of jobs that that will create, I can see that in the next decade there really will be people living and working in space. And just like you might jump on a plane to go on a business trip, you might jump on a rocket to go to your job on the International Space Station or a commercial space station of the future.
Dan Blumberg: What are some of your biggest lessons so far in working on this beyond earth endeavor?
Jana Stoudemire: So in my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work on some leading edge products and to create some new markets terrestrially. It’s never easy. It’s always bumpy. The path is not linear. In space, I think it’s the same thing. We’re finding our pathway to how we build commercial space stations, commercial space economies, opportunities for opening access to international partners and countries around the world. And I think for me, that’s the most rewarding part of this journey. It’s never going to be easy, but when you look back and you realize that you have been a part of building history and really creating opportunities for prosperity and changing the way that we think about what our economies look like today, I think that’s just a fascinating place to be.
Dan Blumberg: Is there anything else that you think our listeners should know about what’s to come?
Jana Stoudemire: I think the one thing that I would say is that we obviously talk a lot about workforce development within our industry, and certainly engineers are important part of that. But so are scientists, so are attorneys that are going to help us with things like the laws and regulations. Food. Food is an important component when you’re living off the planet. So I think when you think across almost any profession that exists here on earth, that’s something that you’re going to be doing in space in the future. It’s not that far away and it is the future.
Dan Blumberg: This is fascinating stuff. Jana, thank you so much. That’s Janice Stoudemire, and this is Crafted from Artium. If you’re looking to launch and achieve exit velocity, let’s talk. At Artium we can help you build great software, recruit high performing teams, and achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. You can learn more about us at thisisartium.com and start a conversation by emailing, “Hello,” at thisisartium.com. If you like today’s episode, please subscribe and spread the word because everything you need is right here.
Jana Stoudemire: You just found what you were looking for.