3D printing in space – and all the possibilities that brings

by Chris Zappone

3D printer being tested in zero G. Photo: http://www.madeinspace.us

3D printer being tested in zero G. Photo: http://www.madeinspace.us

3D printing in space is the kind of new application of a novel technology that could open up a fresh chapter in both space and manufacturing. It reduces the supply chain to almost nothing, making it self-contained in a way that serves the International Space Station and other orbitals. The practical, real [out-of-this-world] uses will answer a fundamental question that has been asked of 3D printing in recent years: What’s it good for?

Niki Werkheiser, 3D Print project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center said the technology has already been tested in zero-G and there are several examples of the kind of tools it could produce on the ISS, where it will arrive later this month.

“It is the first step toward [the ‘Star Trek’ replicator],” Werkheiser told Space.com

Will 3D printing in space go together like chocolate and peanut butter? If so, they combination could expand the capabilities of space missions, including to Mars.

“The end result could be far less reliance on resupply from Earth, leading to cheaper and more efficient missions to faraway destinations such as Mars.”

So file this under the better, stronger, faster department. It may point the way to new applications. Because in recent years, looking at our intake of consumer goods, it’s not immediately clear what 3D printing would replace. Part of that reason, is that we just haven’t thought of it yet. Once the gadget, the technology, the need become apparent, 3D printing can fill the gap and form the market. But it’s entirely possible that what 3D printing allows will spur new products we haven’t thought of yet. Again, space could be a valuable testing ground for Earth because space capsules, like far-off islands, are isolated places with sometimes very specific needs. From Space.com:

“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” said NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, who lived aboard the space station from December 2009 to June 2010. “I had to wait for the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one. Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it.”

And rather than a supply rocket, it could just as easily be a container ship sailing the seas. Or a truck crossing a continent. Thinking of today’s news, however, I imagine in a time of renewed sanctions, certain countries will also have every impetus to harness the power of 3D printing to make up for imports they can no longer acquire. Just a thought. In any case, watch this area.