NASA is preparing to launch a 3D printer, which would serves as a flying factory of infinite designs, into space next year, a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool.
In NASA labs, engineers are 3D printing small satellites that could shoot out of the Space Station and transmit data to earth, as well as replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive extreme temperatures.
The spools of plastic could eventually replace racks of extra instruments and hardware, although the upcoming mission is just a demonstration printing job.
“Any time we realize we can 3D print something in space, it’s like Christmas,” said inventor Andrew Filo, who is consulting with NASA on the project. “You can get rid of concepts like rationing, scarce or irreplaceable.”
“If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that’s where 3D printing in space comes in,” said Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, about 35 miles south of San Francisco.
NASA had many options to choose 3d printers ranging from $300 desktop models to $500,000 warehouse builders and for the first 3D printer in space test decided for fall 2014. However, 3d printers were built for use on Earth, and space travel presents some challenges such as the stresses of working in orbit, microgravity, differing air pressures, limited power and variable temperature.
“Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station,” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space. “Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?”
Kemmer and his partners warned engineers there would be ups and downs — nauseating ones. In more than a dozen flights in NASA’s “vomit comet” reduced-gravity aircraft, Made In Space scientists tested printer after printer.
In order to proof of its utility, the team revisited the Apollo 13 breakdown, when astronauts were forced to jerry-rig a lifesaving carbon dioxide filter holder with a plastic bag, a manual cover and duct tape. A 3D printer could have solved the problem in minutes.
“Safety has been one of our biggest concerns,” said strategic officer Michael Chen. Sparks, breakages and electric surges can have grave consequences in the space station. “But when we get it right, we believe these are the only way to manifest living in space,” he said.
Scott Crump, who helped develop 3D printing technology in 1988 by making a toy frog for his daughter, said he never conceived how pivotal it could be for space travel.
“The good news is that you don’t have to have this huge amount of inventory in space, but the bad news is now you need materials, in this case filament, and a lot of power,” he said.
Mastering space additive manufacturing, along with finding and producing water and food on the moon or other planets, could lead to living on space.
The space agency awarded Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited $500,000 toward a project to use 3D printing and robots to build massive antennas and solar power generators in space by 2020. It replaces the expensive and cumbersome process of building foldable parts on Earth and assembling them in orbit.
“It’s not something we’re discussing publicly right now,” said CEO Kemmer.
Then, Jason Dunn, the chief technology officer, beckoned, dropping his voice as he grinned.
“We’re going to build a Death Star,” he joked softly, referring to the giant space station in the “Star Wars” movies that could blow up planets. “Then it’s all going to be over.”