A Little 3-D Printer on the ISS Is a Huge Step for Space Exploration

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When humans depart from Earth to set up the first planetary colony, they’ll have to travel light. Seeds, water, and tools might secure a spot on the cargo ship. But but everything else will have to be built from extraterrestrial materials. The question is, how?

Mike Chen (left) and Jason Dunn (right) Click to Open Overlay Gallery
Mike Chen (left) and Jason Dunn (right) "floating" during a parabolic flight in which the zero-G 3-D printer was validated.

When humans depart from Earth to set up the first planetary colony, they’ll have to travel light. Seeds, water, and tools might secure a spot on the cargo ship. But but everything else will have to be built from extraterrestrial materials. The question is, how?

Made In Space might have an answer. Today, NASA will send a resupply mission to the International Space Station carrying a high-tech 3-D printer and feedstock from the microgravity tech company. Voila: the first off-world manufacturing facility. The Cygnus spacecraft carrying the printer will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 pm Eastern time. (Come back here to watch the launch live later.)

Back in 2014, Made In Space sent their first small, experimental printer up to the ISS. Since then, they’ve tweaked their design to print a wider variety of hardware and with more materials (30 at last count, though only three types of plastic will go up today). Now, NASA and the US National Laboratory will use the updated Additive Manufacturing Facility to print aerospace grade goods on-station. Imagine the possibilities—need an extra wrench to fix that damn space toilet? No problem, print one. Rogue orbital debris punched a hole in your satellite? Mission control will send the missing component’s digital file to the printer in a matter of hours. It’s like the ISS just got a local hardware store.

“Space exploration is a lot like a camping trip—if something goes wrong or there’s an emergency, you’ve got to go home to fix it,” says Jason Dunn, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Made In Space. “3-D printing will allow independence from Earth.”

It’ll also save hundreds of thousands of launch dollars. “Raw materials pack down way tighter than built-out objects,” says Dunn, so long-term, a printer cuts down on the number of necessary resupply missions. The printer’s raw plastic also handles the physical stress of takeoff better than pre-built parts; Earth-made objects need heavy reinforcements that prevent them from vibrating too much. Losing those additions can cut weight by up to 30 percent.

3-D printing will open up all kinds of space-related R&D opportunities that were restricted by size and weight until now. “With an onboard printer, you can build things you could never deliver—like an antenna the length of a football field that supplies broadband Internet to the whole world,” says Spencer Pitman, Made In Space’s Head of Product Strategy.

That’s how 3-D printing will help make life easier up in space. But it’ll also help scientists back on Earth. NASA researchers, medical universities, and tech institutes often need to experiment in microgravity—that’s how they build everything from better ISS exercise machines to tools that let crew members catch small floating objects more easily. The problem? “There’s currently no way to achieve extended microgravity on Earth,” says Dunn.

On Earth, researchers can create low gravity with drop towers or parabolic flight. Drop towers are the most accessible, providing brief seconds of weightlessness to an object that’s catapulted up a tall airless shaft. Parabolic flights achieve free fall weightlessness for about 20 seconds by charging an airbus full speed into the sky, then throttling its engines to zero.

But neither drop towers nor parabolic flights are great for testing complex microgravity scenarios, like large-scale docking maneuvers or terrestrial landing techniques. And getting those experiments to the ISS lab is pricey. “The huge cost of getting projects to space is a bottleneck for most researchers,” Dunn says. “That’s where this printer comes in.”

The manufacturing facility is available to any individual or business hoping to test their hardware in microgravity (if they’re willing to fork over $6,000 to $30,000 a print, that is). Made In Space already has orders for medical devices, communication arrays, and even artwork—all of which will be put into functional use right away or stored in Ziploc bags for later. (Seriously.)

Implementing this facility is the first step towards making 3-D printing an institutionalized part of space exploration, like launching is today. Made In Space is already working on a zero-gravity material recycler that’ll turn old prints into fresh feedstock for the printer (which could make the ISS less dependent on raw material resupply) and a robotics platform called Archinaut, which will autonomously assemble huge astro-structures. “Soon, satellites will be built onboard like they’re Lego sets,” says Pitman.

One day, an additive manufacturing facility like this might help us colonize other planets. “Whether you’re on Mars or the ISS, you don’t want to have to wait for something to be sent to you,” says NASA spokesperson Tracy McMahon. “The more you’re able to build where you are, the better off you’ll be.” Planetary pilgrims could 3-D print tools to mine extraterrestrial soil, and use that material to manufacture pre-fab homes and other critical infrastructure. Scotty may not be able to beam up humans yet—but hardware is a good start.

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