Small local company helps answer some big questions (in space)

The Techshot Payload Operations Control Center, from which employees near Louisville can interact with astronauts on the International Space Station. | Courtesy of Techshot.

About 14 miles northwest of Louisville, in a town of about 800 residents, a small cadre of engineers is designing technology to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges, from helping astronauts survive long space voyages to 3-D printing human organs.

Techshot, a private company based in Greenville, Ind., performs work for medical, military and space industries and has capabilities that are shared by only about 10 other companies nationwide, according to an International Space Station official. Techshot’s offices, along U.S. 150, feature a Payload Operations Control Center, essentially a bank of monitors and microphones with which employees can observe and communicate with astronauts on the ISS in real time.

Techshot staff recently witnessed ISS Commander Peggy Whitson installing Techshot’s ADvanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP). The device, which had been brought to the station on a SpaceX cargo craft, is about the size of a microwave oven and in August conducted experiments for the University of Houston, which is studying how to manufacture human organs with a 3-D bioprinter.

A 3-D bioprinter functions much like a regular 3-D printer used for industrial applications, except that it doesn’t produce mechanical parts or tools, but human tissue and eventually, scientists hope, whole human organs.

NASA already is experimenting on the ISS with a regular 3-D printer. That kind of technology will be critical for long space journeys, to help crews with problems for which they need tools that they did not bring: You don’t want to be stuck 20 million miles away from earth when you realize you forgot a socket wrench that you need to repair your spacecraft’s life support system. With a 3-D printer on board, astronauts could ask for schematics to be sent from earth and then print whatever tools they need.

But what if an astronaut suffers a medical emergency and needs a heart valve or a liver — and the closest replacement organ is a three-month trip away? That’s where Techshot’s experiments come in.

Carlos Chang

Techshot Senior Scientist Carlos Chang told Insider recently that the complexity of organs, which consist of various types of cells, including muscle cells, nerves, blood vessels, makes them much more difficult to print than even a complex tool.

That’s especially true on earth, he said, where gravity tends to demolish fragile structures made from biological materials. In space, however, the biological structures are not torn apart by gravity, and scientists hope the experiments on the ISS will give them new insights that will eventually enable them to bioprint entire human organs.

Techshot is involved in other cutting-edge experiments ranging from bird and plant research, to high-speed data acquisition and medical devices. The company has 30 full-time and 10 part-time employees. Only two have no technology background, said Rich Boling, vice president of corporate advancement.

Techshot used to do work exclusively for NASA, but diversified after 2001, when a cut in federal funding forced company leaders to lay of 58 engineers in one day, Boling said. Now Techshot works with clients including the Department of Defense, primarily on life science research, the National Institutes of Health and private companies such as Procter & Gamble.

Revenue will be near $8.5 million this year, up from about $2.5 million five years ago, Boling said. Techshot works for government agencies on a contractual basis. From private industry, the company generates fees for the services it provides.

A lighting subsidiary also provides a steady revenue stream: Techshot Lighting manufactures and sells BATLite (BadAss Tactical Lighting), an ultra rugged and efficient lighting array used for military purposes. It’s so tough, Boling said, that you can run a truck over it.

Screenshot from a Techshot video showing the ruggedness of the company’s lights, which are used primarily by the U.S. military.

One of the nation’s leaders

Ken Shields

Techshot is a “pretty cool little company,” said Ken Shields, director of operations for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. CASIS oversees the U.S. lab on the International Space Station and is charged with promoting research to enable a new era of space research with the goal of improving life on earth.

Shields said his first interactions with Techshot came in 2012, when CASIS was looking for a company to develop a bone densitometer to measure bone loss in rodents in space. CASIS and NASA talked to several companies and settled on Techshot.

The research is critical to keeping astronauts healthy on long space missions and may enable medical researchers to provide better solutions for osteoporosis and other bone diseases.

Humans bodies are optimized to function at earth’s gravity, and engaging in activities such as walking requires people to constantly — and subconsciously — fight gravity, which resembles resistance training and strengthens bones, tendons and muscles. In space, however, that resistance disappears, Shields said, which means astronauts have to exercise about two hours per day to mitigate bone and muscle loss.

On long space journeys, to Mars for example, continued bone and muscle loss could pose significant challenges to the astronauts’ health. Experiments with Techshot’s bone densitometer can provide researchers with insights that can help them develop therapeutic solutions for bone and muscle wasting, Shields said.

While bone densitometers exist on earth, adapting them for space poses unique challenges that few companies can overcome, he said.

To get the technology into space, it has to be rugged enough to withstand a rocket launch and space travel, plus it has to be reliable: You can’t exactly go to the local hardware store to pick up a replacement and drop it off at the space station after work.

And, of course, the experiments will happen in microgravity, so the machine’s designers have to keep in mind that nothing automatically remains in place. Techshot’s designers had to figure out, for example, how the bone densitometer could keep rodents immobile. Otherwise, in microgravity, the critters would just float around.

In addition, the materials used for the machine on earth may not work well in space. Or perhaps the machine on earth emits a radio frequency that can interfere with space station electronics that are critical to life support.

And beyond that, the gear has to be designed to be as small as possible because in space, ironically, space is at a premium: The ISS is about as big as a five-bedroom house, but the U.S. portion is about the size of a 20-foot shipping container, Shields said.

Rich Boling at Kennedy Space Center. | Courtesy of Techshot

Nationwide, only about 10 companies have demonstrated the kind of technical expertise — from mechanical engineering to fluid dynamics — and track record to tackle such complicated challenges, Shields said.

“Techshot is one of the leaders,” he said.

CASIS is promoting the ISS as a research park and high-tech business incubator in space, Shields said, and companies such as Techshot are critical to developing a new commercial marketplace in low earth orbit and space.

While concerns about the ebb and flow of government funding remain, Techshot leaders expect that continued operation of the space station, which costs about $3.5 billion a year, and development of the Mars rocket, which costs another $3.5 billion, and increasing public and private research in space will present plenty of opportunities in the coming years.

“I think the future is still great for Techshot,” Boling said.