Planetary Radio • Nov 27, 2019

Seeking the Killer Space App with Space Tango

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On This Episode

20191127 kris kimel

Kris Kimel

Co-founder and Chairman for Space Tango

20191127 gentry barnett

Gentry Barnett

TangoLab Program Manager for Space Tango

20191127 mike read nasa

Mike Read

Manager, Commercial Space Utilization, International Space Station Program for NASA Johnson Space Center

20190611 bill nye profile cropped

Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Kaplan mat headshot 0114a print

Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Organizations are using the microgravity environment of the International Space Station to develop unique new products. One of them is Kentucky-based Space Tango. We’ll meet its chairman and co-founder and the woman who manages its Tangolab. Also, a NASA rep who works with these pioneers. Time magazine has named the Planetary Society’s LightSail its aerospace invention of the year! Society CEO Bill Nye is grateful to all who have been part of the project. Bruce Betts provides a solar sail update at the top of this week’s What’s Up, and wishes Mat a happy 17th anniversary of Planetary Radio.

Tangolab Program Manger Gentry Barnett at her lab bench
Tangolab Program Manger Gentry Barnett at her lab bench Image: Mat Kaplan / The Planetary Society
Full lab bench setup of CubeLab barley seed processing device
Full lab bench setup of CubeLab barley seed processing device Anheuser Busch barley seed experiment in development at Space Tango’s Tangolab before heading to the International Space Station as a modular CubeLab.Image: Mat Kaplan / The Planetary Society
Mission control room displays at Space Tango’s Kentucky headquarters
Mission control room displays at Space Tango’s Kentucky headquarters Image: Mat Kaplan / The Planetary Society
NASA’s Mike Read talks with personnel at Space Tango
NASA’s Mike Read talks with personnel at Space Tango Image: Mat Kaplan / The Planetary Society
CubeLabs at Space Tango
CubeLabs at Space Tango Image: Mat Kaplan / The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan: [00:00:00] Hemp in space, how about beer? That's this Week on Planetary Radio.

Welcome. I'm at Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Kentucky based Space Tango is actually conducting International Space Station research on far more than the catchy items in my opening line. We'll talk with co-founder Kris Kimel and others about the burgeoning effort to find the killer app or product for production at Zero-G. Happy Anniversary to us whose stats will help me celebrate 17 years of Planetary Radio in this week's what's up. He'll also give us a LightSail 2 update.

LightSail is also why we'll be joined by Planetary Society CEO, Bill Nye the planetary guy right after we check in with the downlink. The Planetary Society's weekly collection of the top headlines in Space [00:01:00] exploration presented by our editorial director Jason Davis. The insight lander on Mars keeps plugging or pounding away with help from the crafts robotic arm. The long trouble Mole hit probe is once again hammering itself below the surface of the Red Planet. Boeing has put at CST 100 Starliner spacecraft on top of an atlas five rocket. With luck, it will make its first voyage to the ISS in December. Science human crew, I'll also note that SpaceX hopes to fly a test of the Crew Dragon capsules escape system next month. Meanwhile, a prototype of that company Starship blew its top a few days ago. SpaceX says the mishap shouldn't delay development of the huge vehicle.

Lastly, scientists have for the first time directly detected water vapor above Europa using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The finding support prior research indicating that there may be transient [00:02:00] plumes erupting from the moon's subsurface ocean. Though other explanations are also possible. Go Europa Clipper. For more on these and other stories, including great links, visit Now to Bill Nye, who is celebrating recognition of the Planetary Society's LightSail solar sail project by the leading news magazine in the US. Bill, not that we needed Time Magazine to acknowledge the, uh... our pride or the success of LightSail 2 but, but it doesn't hurt, does it?

Bill Nye: No, no, it's pretty cool. So Time Magazine's inventions of the year, we are the aerospace invention of the year. It's certainly a heck of a thing. You know, and it's of the year, of, of a year. This thing depend when you start counting is you know, 42 years in the making. And so, uh, it's really gratifying, you know. And for those members who are listening or people who are not yet members, you know, [00:03:00] we flew Cosmos 1 in 2005 but it ended up in the ocean. And then we had an opportunity, uh, four years ago to fly LightSail 1 and we just took it because you just don't know when you're gonna get an opportunity to, to get on a NASA Flight or an ELaNa, Educational Launch of Nanosatellites opportunity so we took that. But LightSail 2 we were able to get to a high enough altitude, 720 kilometers where we could prove that the thing works. Is just... It's really gratifying, Mat. It's just cool as heck.

Mat Kaplan: You mentioned our members, but other people as well. I hear the number 50,000 bandied about.

Bill Nye: Yeah. That's what we say. 50,000 people contributed to LightSail... the LightSail program. Most of them were more recent LightSail 2 when we had Kickstarter awareness and so on. So, thank you all. Really, Mat, another extraordinary aspect of it is, I mentioned Kickstarter, that was one way we raise money, but the main way is just through membership in the Planetary Society. We did [00:04:00] our first $7 million over, over, uh, it depends how you count, over the last 12 years or what have you. If you were gonna do that at a regular space agency like NASA, or ISA, or CNES, or French Space Agency, it would cost about, people estimate about 20 times as much. 140, 150 million to do this project to fly two Solar sails in Earth orbit.

And the reason we did it so much more cheaply is we took risks. And we also do not have continuous coverage around the world. We don't have the Deep Space Network, we just have Hawaii, San Luis Obispo, California, Purdue in Indiana and Georgia Tech in Georgia in the US. And so it's very cool. We pulled it off.

Mat Kaplan: And I am very proud. I am, I'm proud to be a member who stood behind this, who stands behind this and I... I'm proud to be part of the organization, if not a direct part of the team that, uh, that put it up [00:05:00] there.

Bill Nye: Yeah. I'm not a direct part of the team either, Mat, I'm, once in a while I'd say, "Okay, write a check."

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]

Bill Nye: No. So the, the problems that these guys and gals overcame is really, really exciting. You know, and, and pers... the whole thing is so romantic, you know. If you're keeping track, it goes back to Johannes Kepler in 1607 looking at what we now call Comet Halley... Halley's Comet before Edmond Halley ever saw it. He noticed this comet in the night sky, and he noticed that the tail, noticed very carefully that the tail always pointed away from the sun. And Kepler, not really having any knowledge of photons or modern physics of light, he just reason that there's something about the sun that's creating this tail or these tails, the ion tail and the dust tail. Then 400 years later, we were able to exploit that feature of sunlight to fly. It's just exciting.

And so we [00:06:00] hope, as, as the goal of the Planetary Society this... democratizes spaceflight that other organizations, universities will use Solar sails to go to other destinations in the solar system.

Mat Kaplan: Or perhaps beyond.

Bill Nye: Whoo. Yeah, it really is the only technology anybody's thought of right now that could take you to another star system and that is you build a Solar sail, uh, similar in shape to LightSail 2 and you give it a push with a la- with a laser or a group of lasers either on earth or on the far side of the moon, has been discussed, where you'd have solar panels to make electricity to crank huge lasers and give this thing a push. And so the existing drawings, or plans, or artists concepts of inter [inaudible 00:06:48] or flight, uh, always... we always have a square sail very similar to LightSail. You know, you converge on the same answer, right? Do you want booms, things to hold the sail rigid, [00:07:00] or would you rely on just the spin of a sail. Just the centripetal centrifugal action of, uh, something on the, on the corners or the ci- circumference of the sail... perimeter of the sail. And, uh, now right now everybody's thinking is we... booms are good. Booms ar, are efficient.

Mat Kaplan: I would say that LightSail has had a good part in helping to convince people that those booms are a, are a, a, a good way to go.

Bill Nye: Or a worthy way to go. So everybody if you haven't done it, go to our control panel-

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Bill Nye: Our mission, mission control, rather, on our website,, and you'll find when you can go looking for it in the night sky, in the evening sky, the morning sky. It's really something... when... it's just a dot, it's just a pinprick of light, but it's, it's our.of light people built by citizens around the world who just thought that this was a worthy technology to pursue, and this... there are a couple missions [00:08:00] that a future LightSail style spacecraft is ideal for climate monitoring from above the poles, and, uh, the search for asteroids and especially monitoring solar weather. So there'll be a coronal mass ejection event on the sun. And this stream of particles is hurtling toward our planet that would damage... excessively damage, will create excessive damage to our satellites, to our space assets.

And with the solar sail station keeping with the earth at an inferior orbit, say around the orbit of Venus 0.7 astronomical units from the sun, you could get a head start. You could get three, three and a half, four hours warning against the stream of charged particles. In 2012 there's a very serious event that mised the earth by about two weeks.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Bill Nye: It, it slashed through Earth's orbit two weeks behind us. So we, uh, we... this is a real practical use of this technology along with the [00:09:00] romance.

Mat Kaplan: And I will say with a wink of my eye as we close here, more news approaching, more honors approaching-

Bill Nye: Oh, yes. Yes, your eyes are, are a wink.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]

Bill Nye: That's cool. It's... But you guys in Time Magazine, come on, it's like Person of the Year, except it's our spacecraft with 99 other cool inventions. Carry on, Mat.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you, Bill. We will. Thanks for, uh-

Bill Nye: Let's keep them flying.

Mat Kaplan: Thanks for the leadership. That's Bill Nye. He's the CEO of the Planetary Society, which, uh, stands behind and under LightSail 2, which, uh, could be sailing on the light of the sun over your head right now.

Another SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule will head for the International Space Station in early December. It will carry a metric ton of science experiments to that national laboratory. One of them will contain barley seeds provided by none other than Anheuser-Busch Brewer of Budweiser and [00:10:00] many other beers. The fascinating story behind this and other efforts is what brought me in early October to the Kentucky headquarters of Space Tango. My host was the company's co-founder and chairman, Kris Kimel. Kris, it's pretty fun to be here at the home of Space Tango in, uh, Lexington, Kentucky. What is happening here? I see a whole bunch of workbenches.

Kris Kimel: Well, fundamentally there's... everybody's preparing for the next launch. Space Tango, of course, is really a research design and manufacturing company that just doesn't do work on the planet Earth. Uh, so everybody is busy preparing for, uh, a series of missions and experiments that will go up on, on the next launch, which I believe is going to be in, in late October. Um, we'll... we generally launch now about, about, uh, six times a year. So it's always very active. Uh, a lot of interesting things going on, and what you're basically around is all the, uh, engineering capabilities as well as some of the biotechnology.

Mat Kaplan: You know, the line from, uh, Captain James Kirk. He said, "Yeah, I'm from Iowa. I just work up there."

Kris Kimel: That's [00:11:00] basically it. Yeah. You know, I tell people about... when I give talks often, I say that or if I'm talking about some of the biot... biomedical things that we do that are really interesting. I sometimes say, you know, "What if the next big... Have you ever thought about it, the next big biomedical breakthrough isn't on the planet Earth?" Just to give them a sense of, yeah, its space it's exotic. But on the other hand, it's really just a... it's another physics environment. And we along with others are now be a- able to exploit that physics environment, use that physics environment for trying to answer different kinds of questions and look for different kinds of solutions.

Mat Kaplan: You're the chair... chairman, but you're also one of the co-founders. Why did you wanna create a company like this?

Kris Kimel: I would like to say that, oh, um, it all started when I was five years old, um, but it didn't have... I think a lot of people my, my, uh, my interest in my career have been very circuitous. Um, at one point I was president of the Kentucky Science Technology Corporation. Um, and that's where the genesis for this, this kind of organization started to, to percolate and we [00:12:00] created... the first organization we created was something called Kentucky Space, which was an independent nonprofit subsidiary. And, um, actually we started thinking we were going to, to build, um, small satellites. CubeSat.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Kris Kimel: Is which was where we started. We started will help high-altitude balloons, then moved to suborbital and into orbital. Um, actually Twyman Clements, who's now the CEO of Space Tango was actually hired, hired as a student to work at Kentucky space. So he's, he's been there since the... he's the other co-founder and has been there since the beginning. It kind of evolved.

And as we started to go into the, the CubeSat, uh, arena, and then had, had an opportunity to build something for Space Station, it was just one of those things where I think our curiosity, um, and the opportunity kind of converged and then we realized that low Earth orbit and microgravity, uh, may be a, a revolutionary, uh, new pathway for all sorts of no... new discoveries with materials and, and particularly in the, in the biomedical area for applications on earth in addition to no space medicine, which is, you [00:13:00] know, how do we keep people alive in space? Which is obviously a, a big issue too. But really our focus has been more on how do we, you know, utilize microgravity for... to benefit people on earth.

Mat Kaplan: Kentucky Bourbon Thoroughbred's, nothing against this town. It's a lovely town. But Lexington, Kentucky is not the first place most people think of in terms of developing or exploring space. And yet you've been able to build this company here. I mean, it seems to say something about the progress that we've made in space development, space utilization.

Kris Kimel: Well, I think clearly over the, particularly the past 10 years, five to 10 years, the spa- you know, the space industry, commercial space research has, has really opened up. I think a couple things have been driving that that made it more difficult for places like Lexington or people here and other places to get involved. One was the access to space. Um, I, I think since actually I think, at the time, it was controversial, but I think NASA's decision to scrub The Shuttle, uh, and then move to a different vehicle and encourage the private [00:14:00] sector to get involved, really opened things up. Uh, it was very difficult for anyone to compete with The Shuttle because of the cost and et cetera. I think that opened things up.

The other thing I think it's really been... is revolutionary, uh, is just the relentless and continued, uh, miniaturization and develop of new technologies.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Kris Kimel: Everything that we do here most everything is, um, is very small, very robust, very technical, and that ability to develop very, very small technologies, uh, and be able to partner with a NASA, or an Orbital, or SpaceX or some of the other vehicle, uh, launch vehicle companies to put things it's ve... it's really something that was not available 10 years ago. And because of that, I mean, we have a lot of people here in Lexington, like everywhere else in the country in the world that have great ideas and are very smart. I think a lot of things that, that may be kept us from creating, uh, synergy here in the past wasn't the lack of ideas. It wasn't a lack of people. It was just lack of the infrastructure and ability to do that.

Um, you know, you needed big stuff, you needed to be, you know, [00:15:00] you needed to, to handle... to launch capability or be near a NASA facility. And I think that's all changed. And that's opened a lot of opportunity up for places like this.

Mat Kaplan: What is the infrastructure? I mean, what have all these developments allowed you to create on the International Space Station so that you can basically host this work?

Kris Kimel: Uh, I think it's a lot of things. Uh, our, our engineers probably have or have a better deeper sense of some of the specifics. But clearly, we now know... we know, um, that, you know, when you move into microgravity, all biological and physical systems are scrambled. Uh, and that scrambling process, uh, opens up a whole new, uh, opportunity, one, to understand, uh, how things operate not only in microgravity, but they act differently there. Is it, you know, sometimes it tells us something about the system, how it operates on earth that we may not have seen on Earth. Just very briefly, we did an experiment a year, a year or two ago with Tuft University dealing with planarian flatworm is which our major focus were regenerative medicine. Those of you who didn't sleep [00:16:00] through high school sciences, I did.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]

Kris Kimel: Know that when you cut them in threes, they regenerate heads, tails, and the midsection grows a head and tail. So they were very interested in one big, you know, focuses. Understand that mechanism. So we put, you know, we put 15 in space and then cut 15 other and cut them. And when we came back, they saw some really interesting differences. And one of the most intrig- intriguing differences they saw is that one of the mid sections had grown to heads. And I believe their offspring had two heads. So that's one of those things where you go, "Gosh, wh- wh... how did that happen?" And we don't know.

A lot of times people will ask us when we're doing experiments, "What do you think you're gonna see when you send something..." we planned experiments, for example, uh, plants that are the basis for chemo drugs, looking for chemistry changes or any kind of alterations. We've done, you know, things with stem cells, brain organoids. And people often ask, "What do you think you're gonna see?" And the answer most of the time is, "We don't know." Uh, this is very much a frontier and that's why we're going to space. But that microgravity environment, because of its very nature is, is opening up and allowing us and [00:17:00] others into a different room to look for different kinds of solutions that really we haven't been able to do in the past.

Mat Kaplan: Of course, that brain organoid work, we're also talking about because of the folks at UCSD that you're working with. But I'm curious about some of the other... some of these other experiments that have been set up. Uh, what's this thing about hemp?

Kris Kimel: Well, uh, we're a curious company. People understand that one of the aspects of, of Space Tango is that we, we don't see ourselves simply as a service company or a transactional company. I mean, that's a lot of what we do right now. Uh, but we also see ourselves as an idea company. We see ourselves as a company also pushing the envelope with our own ideas or ideas in partnership with others, to try to figure out new ways and new things, new ideas. We became, uh, very interested last year in looking at some of the potential biomedical applications primarily of things like cannabinoids, and CBD, and, and things of that nature and did a lot of research on, on CBD and of course, hemp being the non psychoactive cousin of THC, [00:18:00] and discovered, discovered or you know, uncovered in our mind, some... we thought are some very interesting opportunities to look at the properties of cannabinoids in a Zero-G environment.

Um, for example there's over, I think approximately 130 cannabinoids actually. And we really could only access wi- with any degree of accuracy and volume, a co... just a couple [inaudible 00:18:22] a THC and CBD I think, CBA or CB other things, other... a few others. But... So, one of the things we're really interested in is do we see which we have seen in the past with other planets perhaps epigenetic changes in the space that might turn on some of those genes that might, uh, allow us to see or turn on or activate, uh, other kinds of, of, uh, cannabinoids, uh, et cetera. Do we see differences in the plants and the chemistry and the genes. And so our really interest is looking at cannabinoids, looking at the hemp plant in that environment as a possible, understand is a possible pathway to enhancing the biomedical potential.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Kris Kimel: [00:19:00] Uh, and health and, and wellness potential of CBD and other cannabinoids and other chemistry that are part of the hemp plant.

Mat Kaplan: So it's 95 degrees here today in Lexington, I maybe therefore I'm not that sorry that we're not gonna make it out to a field just out of town. You showed me some pictures and maybe we'll post one of those on the show page. Uh, were you doing a little bit of cultivation.

Kris Kimel: Yeah. Um, Space Tango is a small company, uh, which is great. And when you're in a small company, uh, you have to do a lot of things. And, uh, when we brought the hemp seeds back one of the things we did we planted them in a greenhouse, uh, and then we grew them out of the greenhouse and evaluated them, uh, at certain, certain intervals. And then we're gonna put them in the field and then once they've grown out in the field, and then harvest them from the field at a particular, uh, interval and then do genetic and chemistry analysis and see what, what, uh, might evolve from that point.

And, um, as luck would have it, last week, I got a call on Tuesday from one of our... Rob Gabbert who works with us and said, "Hey, we got to get 60 plants out in the [00:20:00] field by Friday." And I said, "Well, Who's we?" And he said, "Well, I guess it's you and me since the engineers are busy preparing for the next flight and we don't have, you know, people out there."

So, um, I put on my, my, my jeans and work shirt and Rob and I went out and dug and planted, uh, 60 holes and planted out, uh, 60, uh, of the hemp plants that had been in the, in the greenhouse that he had both the control group and the plants that had been, uh, the dry from seed that had been in space. Uh, and I will say, like a lot of places in this country, it hasn't rained here in about two months. So the, the ground was rock hard.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Kris Kimel: Uh, but that's what we had to do. And that's like a small company. You do what you have to do. There's no such thing as a small company as, that's not a good use of my time.

Mat Kaplan: Such other duties as maybe a sign.

Kris Kimel: That's right.

Mat Kaplan: I- I'm curious about the relationship with NASA. Because obviously, the space agency had to enable these things to happen on the ISS. How does that work for you?

Kris Kimel: NASA has been an, an amazing partner with Kentucky Space and Space Tango from the very beginning, as they have with a lot of other emerging space companies. We fortunately have [00:21:00] something called a Space Act Agreement with NASA that basically, uh, gives us access to the station, it gives us launch opportunities in partnership with NASA and some of the launch, launch companies. And so they're very much, uh, very much a... an ongoing full time really partner o- of what we do. Um, and wi- without NASA and some of their new innovative policies, we certainly couldn't... wouldn't able to be achieving what we do. And, uh, those Space Act Agreements and other kinds of, of collaborations that we have in NASA are, are absolutely essential. Not only to I think Space Tango, uh, feature, but really the, the, the commercialization of space in general.

Mat Kaplan: It sure seems like all of this is still happening at a pretty embryonic level. Do you see enormous potential? Do you expect to see, well, I'll call it the killer app, but it might be a killer product or do you think that microgravity is going to pay off basically? Not just in terms of a profit for you and your partners, but in, in terms of, uh, helping us down here on the surface of [00:22:00] earth.

Kris Kimel: Absolutely. Um, a lot of times its Space Tango we talk about. You know, every time we've, we have been able to get a hold of, or, uh, capture a physics environment, a new physics environment, um, harness it, whether it be, uh, electromagnetism or the vacuum, it has led to a couple of things. It has inevitably led to exponential growth in new ideas and, and applications and, and significant capital creation. And really what we're talking about here is the fact that we are now at the beginning of being able to harness the physical environment of microgravity in a real way.

You know, on Earth, you can't mimic it on Earth, you know, drop towers, you know, the vomit comet, you get a few minutes, but-

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Kris Kimel: ... you really don't get any kind of prolonged exposure like we do now. And yes, we're on the, we're on the cusp of that. But just like other physics environments, we fully expect and anticipate that this too, uh, we will look back upon, um, in the years ahead and realize that this was a, a monumental breakthrough that has led to all [00:23:00] sorts of new understandings and improvement in, in people's lives.

Mat Kaplan: We like pioneers on this show. Kris. Thank you. Exciting stuff. Best of success.

Kris Kimel: Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: That's Kris Kimmel. By the way, we'll learn more about those so called brain organoids Kris mentioned in an upcoming episode of Planetary Radio, stick around, we're about to meet the woman who manages all of the amazing research taken on by Space Tango and its clients.

Casey Dreier: I know you're a fan of space because you're listening to Planetary Radio right now. But if you want to take that extra step to be not just a fan, but an advocate, I hope you'll join me Casey Dreier, the Chief Advocate here at the Planetary Society at our annual Day of Action this February 9th and 10th in Washington, DC. That's when members from across the country come to DC and meet with members of Congress face to face and advocate for space. To learn more, go to

Mat Kaplan: Back to Space Tango.

Gentry Barnett: My name is Gentry Barnett and [00:24:00] I am the TangoLab Program Manager at Space Tango.

Mat Kaplan: And do a lot of the biomedical stuff here right here.

Gentry Barnett: I am a biomedical, uh, engineer by trade. Yes. And so I, I, I oversee all the payloads in this role. For each mission we'll select a couple of mi... payloads for that mission depending on payload readiness, uh, and some of the logistics they need for each flight. So that, that kind of determines what payloads go on a mission. Uh, yes, and then I will oversee all those, the development, the engineering, uh, a- and making sure those get to space.

Mat Kaplan: So as our listeners know, I'm a gear head at least that's what my boss, the, the science guy says. Uh, this is kind of heavenly. And tell me about this amazing collection of circuit boards, and tubes, and, and a bag of seeds. What's going on here?

Gentry Barnett: So this is actually a payload that's going up on our next mission. This is a payload with, uh, Anheuser-Busch. Um, what they're looking at or the seeds you're looking a, um, are barley seeds.

Mat Kaplan: Uh-huh.

Gentry Barnett: And, and they're really exploring with this payload, the malting process. [00:25:00] Uh, wh- which consists of three different phases: Steeping, uh, germination, and kilning. Normally, obviously, they do this in a much larger environment. Um-

Mat Kaplan: They make a lot of beer.

Gentry Barnett: Yes, they do. Uh, so we, we went out to their facilities in Fort Collins, Colorado, uh, to learn this process. So what we do, uh, uh, air space thing, uh, with the engineers is, is we really miniaturize that process, uh, into something, um, slightly bigger than a, than a shoe box, uh, which we call a CubeLab. Uh, and this is a self-contained environment, uh, that we automate from our offices in Lexington.

Mat Kaplan: They come to you Anheuser-Busch, "We would like to do something about malting, part of the beer mak... process of making beer in space in microgravity. You figure out how to make that work on the ISS.

Gentry Barnett: Yes, that's exactly what we do. A- as an engineer i- in this, uh, specific company, we have to have a very quick, uh, learning process. So, yes, we went out there, we, we went over the process that they normally [00:26:00] do. Uh, a- and then we have to, we have to miniaturize that. We have to learn each component of that. Uh, a- and then we'll set up what, what you're seeing in front of you, uh, this is the payload sprawled out, uh, i- in more of a benchtop prototype fashion, uh, so that we can see every functional piece of how this is working and, and follow along at e- at every step of the way.

Um, and what you'll see in the bag over here is actually the, the end of the steeping process. The seeds have actually developed these acro spires which is tunney, uh, growth at the end o- of one end of the seed. Uh, and that's exactly what we were looking for. So then tomorrow we'll, we'll go into the germination phase. Uh, and then the kilning where we will actually draw these seeds out and the end result will be malt that will send to them and they'll do a chemical profile and compare that... the different chemical profile and the, the taste profile, uh, that results from this malt. Uh, and then obviously we'll do the same thing for the result and malt that comes back from the Space Station.

Mat Kaplan: So this will all go into, I assume some kind of a rack mount unit and the self contained? I mean, [00:27:00] will astronauts have to tend this or will it pretty much take care of itself.

Gentry Barnett: Uh, no, once we, once we, uh, put the tops on our CubeLabs they become a, a self contained environment. So really the only crew interaction that we have is moving it from the rocket that takes it up. So either from the dragon or the Cygnus module, uh, will take that out and install it into our TangoLab facilities, um, on the Space Station that are in EXPRESS rack. And from that point forward, they will be fully automated. And we control that from our up station, um, here in Lexington upstairs.

Mat Kaplan: Is this experiment that has already been completed at least the first phase of it with so called brain organoids that we're also talking about today. Is it essentially similar to this? Where they, they came to you from UCSD and you had to figure out how to make it go into space?

Gentry Barnett: Yes, absolutely. So with the UCSD project, the brain, the organoids, they're studying how the brain develops, uh, in a microgravity environment under these different kinds of stresses that are normally [00:28:00] seen on Earth, obviously. What we have to do, um, as Space Tango is we have to take the environment that they have, uh, in their labs at UCSD, you know, how they normally keep these cells alive and do that in a much smaller, automated, fully sealed environment. Um, so we, we work directly, uh, you know, one on one with that team to understand their different requirements, uh, to explain our different requirements and really come together to develop this very unique, uh, minilab system that's put in our CubeLab.

Mat Kaplan: From beer to brains, with all kinds of other stuff in between, seems like a pretty fun job.

Gentry Barnett: Absolutely. It is a lot of fun. What's unique about everybody that works here and really all of our customers, um, is we're willing to discover. And we're willing to open the doors to whatever we may find, whatever we may not find. Uh, we're, we're always looking for another answer. We're always asking a different question. That drive for innovation, the drive for something new, just asking the question of, of what could happen, [00:29:00] uh, that's really what makes this job so interesting, and I think what brings a lot of our customers to our doors.

Mat Kaplan: Have you seen enough that you have confidence as Kris Kimel does in the potential of microgravity for developing manufacturing products that will be unlike any we can create on earth?

Gentry Barnett: 100%, yes. There's, there's really endless potential here. Uh, and again, it's just being... having that willingness to ask these questions. Every question you ask may not have this profound answer that you were expecting, uh, that these unique, I guess, side questions that you could also ask along the way, tend to bring results that you weren't expecting.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Gentry Barnett: And those are the ones that, you know, we need to explore both as a company with Space Tango, you know, with our customers, and really, as a humanity.

Mat Kaplan: Absolutely exciting stuff. Thanks so much.

Gentry Barnett: Absolutely. Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: Gentry Barnett is Space Tango's TangoLab Program Manager. As luck would have it Mike Read was visiting Space Tango while I was [00:30:00] there. Mike manages NASA's Commercial Space Utilization office for the International Space Station Program. That makes him a key liaison for companies like Space Tango that are conducting research and development on the ISS.

Mike, we're in Lexington, we've talked with people from Space Tango, we've seen some of the amazing stuff that they are up to. But they're just one of several companies, right? That are getting these terrific opportunities on the International Space Station.

Mike Read: That's correct. We have probably 10 at last count, small businesses, most of them that are doing business in space. And they, and they have contracts with us. So we can buy services from them and other government agencies can buy services, but they're out marketing,. And they're out selling their services on the Space Station and they're now stakeholder for us in space. And that's important to us.

Mat Kaplan: Some of this stuff is because the ISS is a national labs, something we've talked about on this show before, but there are other ways, other kinds of status that people can have?

Mike Read: Yeah. I [00:31:00] mean, we, we rolled out a whole commercialization strategy back in June at the NASDAQ, and it's multi elements. One of them is companies doing business on the Space Station, just like Space Tango. They have their own hardware. We don't own it, they own it. We buy services, they sell to us. They sell to other government agencies, and they sell to commercial sector. But there's also gonna be private astronaut missions to the Space Station, there's gonna be, uh, a solicitation for a commercial element, there could be a, a privately run module that's attached to the Space Station. So there's many different things we're doing to try to broaden the commercial presence in low Earth orbit.

Mat Kaplan: And some of that, like attaching something to the ISS. Now the Bigelow room that's up there right now that inflatable which we've, we've talked, we've gone to Bigelow Aerospace and talked to them about that. That was under contract to NASA, but you're talking about that kind of space?

Mike Read: Yeah, that's a perfect example of a Pathfinder. That was NASA technology that was mostly developed but wasn't finished. Now, Robert Bigelow [00:32:00] came in, one, to license it. And, uh, under contract with us he, he built it out the, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, BEAM we call it.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah.

Mike Read: Has been attached to ISS for several years now. And, uh, a year or two ago, we brought it in as a, as a, uh, a full blown element in our operational status on ISS. We, we use it for storage so that we can have more storage in our racks for the, the critical payloads and things we're operating. So it's very much integrated into the daily life of ISS.

Mat Kaplan: So it's kind of a closet now, right?

Mike Read: It's more than that. I- I- it was important. The volume is very limited, as you can imagine in the ISS. And so being able to move some of the, the things that you need to get to sporadically but not regularly being able to move them into the, the BEAM, that was very important to us because it allows us to use our Rackspace that, that houses some of our critical science. It, it allowed us to put things there that we use much more regularly. And so that's an important element now on the ISS.

Mat Kaplan: I've talked about finding the killer app [00:33:00] or the killer product in this case. That thing that we're gonna discover that maybe can only happen in microgravity, but is going to be profitable, uh, for somebody down here on Earth. Not just money for the people who develop it, but maybe improving life down here as well. Is that the ultimate goal?

Mike Read: The ultimate goal is to... for NASA is to be one of many customers in, in space. Right now we're really the only paying customer in the space. We are always gonna have a need for space. For crew training, for our fundamental and applied research, and for our advanced systems development. If we're the only customer, that means when Space Station is gone, whatever comes next, we're gonna be paying all the overhead. That's not tenable. So part of our commercial strategy was to enable scalable demand, which is more in space manufacturing.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Mike Read: Some of the things that Space Tango has an interest in. Um, so that if, if, if it proves out that there's actually benefit of doing this in [00:34:00] microgravity, then you will need a next generation module because Space Station only has so much volume. And if they need it, it will happen. If somebody wants to build it and there's no need, it might happen, but it's not gonna have as good a chance of being successful. So we're really looking at de- developing the demand for low Earth orbit.

Some of the things we're looking at are, are like the, the scalable sustainable manufacturing, bioengineering, uh, tissue regeneration, personalized medicine, uh, exotic fibers, exotic optical fibers, things like that, that are actually better because they're in microgravity is still being proven out. And we're willing to make some investments in that and that's what we're doing.

Mat Kaplan: I think I said to Kris Kimel e- earlier today, that this is really still at an embryonic stage.

Mike Read: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Mat Kaplan: We got long ways to go.

Mike Read: Yeah. And some things are further along than others. Some of the regenerative medicine stuff is probably, uh, further out than maybe some of the things like some of the optical fibers that we've done two or three different, uh, [00:35:00] flight demonstrations on and have several more with several different companies doing it different ways. So we're kinda trying to, uh, cover the waterfront, if you will. And, and for the government, this is a unique position. Uh, we- we're trying to enable a- an economy in a place that it doesn't exist. And I say enable because we can't create. That's up to the private sector. We can, we can create an environment where the private sector sees opportunities. We can sure keep it from happening. We- we'd be very good with that where there are bureaucracy, but we're actually trying to enable this to happen so that we, we benefit in the long run too, because now we're not the only customer and others that can prove profitability can pay their own way.

Mat Kaplan: I was at Space Tango for a good part of the morning and you were in there in a meeting with them for, uh, hours going through stuff, is... that's part of your job?

Mike Read: Yeah. That's, that's the best part of my job is helping small companies see opportunities, hear their interest, put the pieces together for them, help them connect the dots, um, let them tell us [00:36:00] what they need from us and point out opportunities in the government where this might be a so- source of funding or that might be a source of funding or, "Hey, we have an interest in that." And, and, you know, we might be able to help out. But that- that's actually one of the best parts of the job is, most of these companies that we have our agreements with are small. Sometimes I feel like a father confessor with them, 'cause I, I live so closely with, with the trials and tribulations that they're going through as startups. And seeing them succeed is critical to what we do.

And so helping them see the bigger picture which we're a bureaucracy, it's hard to talk to us. But if I can be the face of that bureaucracy with them, then, then that's, uh, the better for both parties.

Mat Kaplan: Do you ever think about the historic or historical significance, the historic perspective of this? Because in a sense, we're opening up a new world, a new frontier, people started to come to America, they didn't find the gold that they thought was gonna be here, but the investment eventually paid off. Not without a lot of pain, but it seems like we're on the [00:37:00] verge of doing that again.

Mike Read: A metaphor I like to use is the, uh, comparison to the development of the transcontinental railroad back in 1870s. We had a need to unite the east and the west coast. We had this glorious country, but it was not connected. After the Civil War, the government didn't have the resources to make that happen. But they did have the full faith and credit of the government. So it was... The, the railroad was developed by private consortium coming from the east, coming from the west. The government guaranteed the bonds to be paid off at some point in the future when we were able, but it also gave away resources. And that resource was land. We had vast quantities of land. And so the railroad consortium, took the guarantees and the, the resources that we gave and built that railroad. Then the government became the first customer. We move troops and we moved mail. And then all of a sudden people started going, uh, and settling.

And so what we're doing now is not dissimilar. We are enabling something we need which is new capabilities, new commercial [00:38:00] participation in space, and we're giving away resources. It's up mass, it's crew time, it's the onboard accommodations of the Space Station. And as soon as those combinations are developed, we become a customer, just like we are at Space Tango.

Mat Kaplan: I bet you wish you could look down the line 30 or 40 years and see what all of this groundbreaking stuff has led to.

Mike Read: You know, i- if we're successful, we're gonna be... have the provisions we need in, in space. We're gonna continue to do what we do, we will go on and do the exploration mission but we'll prove out the technologies in low Earth orbit. We're never gonna use next generation life support system in deep space for the first time. It doesn't work that way. They need years of operation in low Earth orbit. If we're not successful, I don't have a picture of that because it's ugly.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Mike Read: Because that means we're still the only customer, we're back into the government contractor relationship. It's not tenable in, in my view. So I'm, I'm optimistic. I believe what we're [00:39:00] doing now in focusing on the demand is something we've never done. And I believe that's the most critical part of what we're doing. If the demand is there, my, my business background tells me that the supply will be generated.

Mat Kaplan: What's that quote? I think it's attributed to different people. But I, I usually mention Benjamin Franklin when he was asked, after demonstrating something about electricity to a woman, uh, she said, "But what good is it Dr. Franklin?" And he said, "What good is a newborn babe?"

Mike Read: Yeah. Tha- that's good. I've not heard that one. But I, I, I think I don't wanna go down the path of if we build it, they will come. 'Cause that's kind of that.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]-

Mike Read: And we've done a lot of that. And it just hasn't proven out. But, uh, if we can pivot and now help develop that demand side, the supply side will come.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you, Mike.

Mike Read: Thank you, I enjoyed it.

Mat Kaplan: That's Mike Read of NASA. I'll be back in moments with Bruce Betts. And this week's, What's Up.

Kate Hollis: The Planetary Society is building the ultimate list of life goals for Space fans, [00:40:00] and we need your help. Hi, I'm Kate Hollis Community Engagement Leader for the society. What's on your list? The [inaudible 00:40:07] objects in the night sky. The most awe inspiring destinations. The experiences of a lifetime. Tell us about them at We'll share them with your space soulmates around the world. That's Thanks.

Mat Kaplan: Time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. It is time, therefore, to talk once again with the chief scientist for the Planetary Society. That's Bruce Betts. He is also the project manager of that, right I think, right? For LightSail. So, we heard-

Bruce Betts: I'm a Program Manager.

Mat Kaplan: Program Manager, I do it all the time. I can never keep them straight. There's project and there's program. Congratulations to you as the program manager. We already heard from Bill, of course, about this, kudos, this great honor from Time Magazine at the top of the show. I figure you must [00:41:00] be happy about that as well.

Bruce Betts: Oh, yeah. It's wonderful after all the work that so many people have put in over so many years when we get a nice accolade like, uh, that from Time Magazine. It, it, it feels good.

Mat Kaplan: What's up? What's the status of that, uh, that big like catching sail in the sky?

Bruce Betts: It's still in orbit. We're still working with it, communicating with it every day, continue to try to refine the solar sailing as long as we still can. Eventually atmospheric drag will drag us down enough that we won't be able to, but we're still getting, uh, effective sailing. And we've been trying some different tricks in terms of de saturating the wheel and different ways and different timing and all sorts of details like that. Work in the inevitable glitches 'cause imagine your computer matching your computer in space. So, um-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Uh-huh.

Bruce Betts: So there are joyful glitches, but, uh, overall, the spacecraft is healthy. It's communicating. Uh, [00:42:00] we, we work out glitches when we find them and we're continuing to, uh, do solar sailing.

Mat Kaplan: I'll keep looking to you now and then for those, uh, status updates and, uh, go LightSail as we hear from lots of lots of listeners who write into the show.

Bruce Betts: Thank you people saying go LightSail.

Mat Kaplan: Let's go night sky.

Bruce Betts: Godspeed night sky.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]

Bruce Betts: Uh, in the evening sky we've got that, uh, the showy planets, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects up there except for the moon in the night sky, natural objects. Venus being the brighter one, which is now just moved above Jupiter. This is all happening low in the West soon after sunset. Venus will be hanging with us for a few months, uh, lighting up the evening West and Jupiter will only be with us a little bit longer as it gets gradually lower in the West. And to the upper left of Venus you can find Saturn, dimmer but still looking like a bright star. In the morning sky we've got Mars, and to [00:43:00] its upper, looking reddish, into its upper right is speaker looking bluish. And if you're checking it out in the next few days, you can still catch mercury to the lower left of Mars, looking even brighter than Mars, but it'll be very low to the eastern horizon before dawn.

Got a Geminids meteor shower. Traditionally, the best of the year coming up peaking December 13th and 14th. However, uh, it's been canceled this year. No, no.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]

Bruce Betts: I- it hasn't, but, but a full moon at the peak will limit the number of meteors visible.

Mat Kaplan: Space rocks are on strike.

Bruce Betts: [laughs] Hoping we can resolve the labor dispute with rocks slamming into the atmosphere. All right. We move on to This Week in Space History and I am ash- ashamed and embarrassed, uh, that, uh, as you know, Mat, yesterday in other words in last week's... this weekend in the space history, I should have mentioned the most important space anniversary of all [00:44:00] 2002 Planetary Radio, and Mat Kaplan recorded its first episode. 17 years. Congratulations. Happy anniversary. Great job. I've enjoyed every one of the billion episodes that we've done.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] I think it's going on 900. I, I forget now, whether it's 800 or 900. Shouldn't be hard to figure out, should it? Um, me too. Uh, you're forgiven. And, uh, thank you for being a part of every one of them. Uh, we're gonna keep it up. Yeah, I hope you'll stick around.

Bruce Betts: I'm sticking around. I'm loving it. All right. Speaking of loving it, I... we move on to Random Space Fact.

Mat Kaplan: 17th anniversary RSF.

Bruce Betts: For this one, I pulled something truly random and, um, mildly meaningless, but kind of not as seen from Earth. The star polyps is the brightest star in the night sky confirmed to have an exoplanet orbiting it.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, [00:45:00] huh. I had no idea. Castor must be very jealous.

Bruce Betts: Very, very jealous. That is your anniversary Random Space Fact.

Mat Kaplan: Good one.

Bruce Betts: Let's move on to the trivia contest. I asked you, what spacecraft observed a planetary transit from the surface of another planet? So, on one planet, looking at a, a planet moving across in front of the sun, how do we do, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: The key word was planetary. We heard from a few people, some who I think might have been confused, some who just wanted to point this out. That Spirit and Opportunity would be the first if you hadn't used that word planetary because they watch transits of the sun by, uh, Deimos and Phobos. Uh, but you did say planetary. And so our winner is Corey Hannon who says it was, um, Spirit and Opportunity's big sister, curiosity, who watched a transit of mercury.

Bruce Betts: [00:46:00] That is indeed true. You can, uh, find it online. It's, it's, uh, not as, uh, easy to see is Phobos and Deimos. But indeed from Mars, the Curiosity rovers camera Mastcam system imaged mercury going across the sun.

Mat Kaplan: Congratulations Corey in, uh, Bellevue, Nebraska. We're gonna send him. But first we got another one to give away another set to give away next week, but he's getting that Yugen Tribe LightSail necklace and earring set, which, uh, you can find in the Planetary Society store at All kinds of other great stuff there including the, the pretty good looking, uh, model for the Planetary Radio t shirt. [laughs] Not bad after 17 years.

Now, what am I saying? It's like the best picture ever taken of me, I think. Uh, so I, I don't know how much... They probably broke Photoshop, creating it but [00:47:00] I- I'm proud of that photo.

Bruce Betts: [crosstalk 00:47:01] I, I didn't notice. Oh my god, you look like Brad Pitt.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah. Our Brad Pitt looks like me.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, I'm not actually looking at the picture.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Well, you're in for a treat. We got from Elizabeth in, uh, New Albany, Indiana. Can you reassure her. She says she's hoping Curiosity was wearing the proper eye protection.

Bruce Betts: Yes, indeed, it has the proper eye protection. They, uh, they put a, uh, so called neutral density filter in front of it. They, they actually flew it and in- intending to take these picture... these types of pictures so they have a filter they put in front of it. Don't worry, Curiosity's eyes are safe.

Mat Kaplan: From Nathan in Vancouver, Washington. Apparently none of our robot pals have observed an earth transit from the surface of Mars. The next one is due in 2084. Given how long our rovers seem to last up there, maybe Curiosity will catch it.

Bruce Betts: [00:48:00] Be there.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Uh, and finally this, from, uh, Essen in Richmond Hill, Ontario, we need to send many more spacecraft to the surface of other celestial bodies to enjoy more planetary transits. Oh, wait. I've come to the right place. The Planetary Society is working toward that goal. Thank you everyone at the Society. Thank you, Essen.

Bruce Betts: All right, I've pulled up the picture, Matt. You are, uh, you are a stunning example of stunningness.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Keep going. No, that's right. That's plenty. Um, she cuts up in for next time.

Bruce Betts: One of those antennas behind you.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] I got those from my Uncle Martin.

Bruce Betts: [laughs] Wow, just, uh, extra obscurity for anniversaries.

Mat Kaplan: Ra- Ray Walston. I miss Ray Walston so much.

Bruce Betts: Oh. Well, sure. Trivia contest. This is, this is a series. What is the largest known, [00:49:00] as of now, what is the largest known object in our solar system that has not been visited by a spacecraft? Here are my notes and caveats. Flybys count as visits, and we are not counting the sun. Go to and get us your entry.

Mat Kaplan: Gotta go at night. Uh, you have until the 4th, that would be Wednesday, December 4th. We're in the last month of the year with this, at 8:00 AM Pacific Time to get us your answer. You might win yourself a Planetary Radio t shirt. After all, we've talked about it enough this episode. So, uh, so why not get one and, uh, [laughs] I'm sure you'll look better in it than I do. Uh, that's it, we're done.

Bruce Betts: I have one other comment. Uh, the 17th anniversary officially from the gods of, uh, holidays, hallmark, wine or spirits. So I'm gonna leave it up to you to celebrate [00:50:00] in my stead. 18th anniversary, I'm already looking ahead, uh, his appliances.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]

Bruce Betts: I did not make that up.

Mat Kaplan: Great. Okay, I need a new toaster.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there and look up to the night sky and think what you would give Mat for the 18th anniversary of appliances. Thank you and good night.

Mat Kaplan: I'll drink to that. He's the chief scientist of the Planetary Society. Respects. He joins us every week here for What's Up.

Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its high-flying members. Will you consider helping us celebrate our anniversary by leaving a review in iTunes Apple podcast? Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Mark Hilverda is our associate producer. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. I'm Mat Kaplan. Ad Astra.[00:51:00]