TechMatters: Space Tango harnesses microgravity at ISS to improve life on Earth


TechMatters is a semi-regular column exploring the intersection between tech and our lives, why it matters, and how it’s helping to improve our quality and vitality of life. 

Here, we will profile new startups and products that have a vested interest in the betterment of life on a physical, emotional, and humanitarian level.

We live in a time in which global interest in outer space continues to thrive. Currently, a team of six crew members is orbiting Earth inside the International Space Station (ISS). Together, they will conduct over 250 scientific experiments while residing at the floating space lab.

Many of these experiments are made possible by a groundbreaking Kentucky-based aerospace startup called Space Tango.

Founded in 2014, Space Tango aims to harness the microgravity environment at the ISS to conduct research and experiments across multiple industries in the hope of improving life on Earth.

Could some of our biggest medical or technological breakthroughs happen in space? The Space Tango team is boldly leading the charge to find out.

Company Origins

Space Tango CEO Twyman Clements and Chairman Kris Kimel originally teamed at Kentucky Space labs to “understand and simplify the complexities of ISS-based research.”

In 2014, the pair of University of Kentucky (UK) alumni co-founded Space Tango as a commercial spin-off of Kentucky Space. Headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, the company “facilitates research and manufacturing in the microgravity environment from design to implementation.”

That research explores applications in life science, physical science, biomedical, flow chemistry, materials manufacturing, and more.

At the outset, Clements and Kimel probably could not have predicted how many doors to discovery the company would open in five years.

TangoLab Installations

Space Tango hit an important milestone when SpaceX successfully launched CRS-9 on July 18, 2016. As a result, American Astronaut Jeff Williams permanently installed TangoLab-1 on the ISS on August 1. ISS crew installed TangoLab-2 a year later. Both research facilities reside in the Destiny module at ISS today.

TangoLabs “provide a standardized platform and open architecture for payload modules called CubeLabs.Each reconfigurable facility is specifically designed for microgravity R&D and pilot manufacturing onboard ISS.

Simply put, CubeLabs are compact “smart” experiments-in-a-box. Up to 21 individual experiments can run automatically and simultaneously in a TangoLab facility. Plus, when completed, CubeLabs are swappable. This allows room for new incoming experiments.

Once astronauts install payload cards, Space Tango controls and monitors each experiment from the ground. Minimizing astronaut interaction this way enables them to work on other things. It also reduces R&D costs while increasing scalability.

Furthermore, customers can access and receive near real-time data from a given experiment via an online customer portal.

Working Together Toward a Common Goal

Space Tango works with the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) and the ISS National Lab Research Manager CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science in Space) in its ongoing mission to understand the effects of microgravity across multiple disciplines.

The company also works with a wide array of customers including commercial companies, academic universities, research foundations, and more.

In leveraging the team’s expertise in spaceflight R&D, customers can rely on Space Tango to alter experiments to fit inside a CubeLab and work in a microgravity environment. With these tasks handled, clients can focus solely on their science.

Space Tango also leads clients through designing, integrating, and operating their experiments on the ISS. After working through the multi-step creation process and assembling the payload, the aerospace firm reviews it “to ensure it meets both the customer’s needs and NASA’s standards.”

Once a payload passes review, it launches to the ISS so studies can begin.

Microgravity Experiments

Space Tango teams with its diverse clients to conduct a wide range of microgravity-based low earth orbit (LEO) and higher-orbit experiments at ISS.

For instance, the aerospace company partnered with LambdaVision, Inc. to build upon terrestrial protein-based retinal implant technology. The microgravity environment could potentially optimize the implant creation process and spur the technology.

LambdaVision’s end goal is to restore meaningful vision to millions of blind people who have degenerative retinal diseases. The implants could potentially help people suffering from ailments like retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The ISS studies are a critical part of that mission.

Other payloads explore aeroponic farming in microgravity, the antifungal properties of aloe vera, the effects of microgravity on the mealworm life cycle, the behavior and flight of alfalfa leafcutting bees and many more.

And, of course…

Exomedicine Focus

Space Tango supports research in numerous fields. However, Clements and Kimel noticed biomedical research in space is popular. In this regard, researchers aim to examine and understand how space affects disease processes. Studies like these could lead to major medical breakthroughs.

“Our primary focus has evolved to the point where 90 percent of our work is focused on biomedical research—something we call exomedicine, which we define as the research, development, and commercialization of medical solutions in space for applications on Earth,” Kimel said in an ISS Upward interview.

Notable examples include studying flatworm regeneration in space to improve cancer treatment on Earth, studying smooth muscle cells in space to improve heart disease treatment, and trying to mimic Parkinson’s disease systems in fruit flies in microgravity to better understand the life-threatening illness.

Future Goals

To date, Space Tango has delivered 64 payloads in 10 missions, which enabled 104 experiments to be conducted.

There are even more missions in the pipeline.

In the mid-2020s, Space Tango plans to launch ST-42, “a fully autonomous robotic orbital platform designed specifically for scalable manufacturing in space.”

The platform will aim to expand capabilities for LEO commercialization and manufacturing in the space economy.

Overall, the microgravity environment remains a vastly-untapped frontier for research, discovery, and innovation. As such, Space Tango, its partners, and clients will keep blazing an interstellar trail that leads to a better life for humanity.