The Final Frontier

NASA Engages Warp Speed with 3D Printing

NASA

NASA is conducting extensive experiments with 3D printers, revolutionising space travel and supporting the food and habitat needs of their intrepid astronauts.

‘Star Trek’ has a lot to answer for. It began when Captain Jean-Luc Picard first approached a replicator and barked the immortal words “TEA. EARL GREY. HOT.” Thereafter, a whole generation of kids grew up dreaming about having their own personal fabrication system. Here, have a supercut.

A fair few of those kids ended up working for NASA, it seems, with extensive plans to adopt 3D printers on their spacecraft for future missions. Successful experiments conducted at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama include a copper engine part for rockets, and the transmission of a model files for a ratchet wrench that was 3D printed on the International Space Station. Building smart shelters on other planets is another avenue of exploration, for which NASA has just launched a $2.25 million design competition for a 3D printed space habitat.

And perhaps the biggest game changer of all is 3D food printing. Fancy a pizza whilst orbiting Mars? A Texas-based company recently printed a prototype pizza with all the toppings. Elsewhere, the Bocusini and Focus 3D printers are capable of even more elaborate food production.

NASA lightens the load

But looking beyond copying ‘Star Trek’, there’s a serious rationale for these activities. With a price tag of $10,000 worth of rocket fuel per 1/2 kg of mass, space transportation is hideously expensive. 3D printers can save NASA millions of dollars simply by lightening the load, where astronauts only print the items they need after they’re in space. The ambitious Space Launch System (SLS) takes its first flight test in 2017, and plans are afoot to put a 3D printer onboard. If successful, astronauts will be able to handle their tasks with less dependency on ground control. 

But there are challenges to overcome. Research is being conducted as to whether layers of heated plastic remain unaffected by zero gravity, for example. This is done by comparative study of identical models that were printed in space and here in on Earth. It’s a mundane task, but an essential one. Sending 3D printers up and having them fail would only present fresh problems for astronauts depending on them for survival.