NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year,a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool,spare part or supply they might ever need.
The printers would serve as a flying factory of infinite designs,creating objects by extruding layer upon layer of plastic from long strands coiled around large spools.
You can get rid of concepts like rationing,scarce or irreplaceable, said inventor Andrew Filo,who is consulting with NASA on the project.
For the first 3-D printer in space test slated for fall 2014,NASA had more than a dozen machines to choose from,ranging from $300 desktop models to $500,000 warehouse builders.
All of them,however,were built for use on Earth,and space travel presented challenges,from the loads and vibrations of launch to the stresses of working in orbit,including microgravity,differing air pressures,limited power and variable temperatures.
As a result,NASA hired Silicon Valley start-up Made In Space to build something entirely new.
Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station, said Aaron Kemmer,CEO of Made in Space. What if the parts could be 3-D printed?
In more than a dozen flights in NASAs vomit comet reduced-gravity aircraft,Made In Space scientists tested printer after printer.
Recently,Made In Space engineers tinkered with a sealed 3-D printer in a dust-free room,preparing the models for further pre-launch tests.
As proof of its utility,the team revisited the notorious 1970 moon-bound 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. Space-bound printers will also,eventually,need to capture gasses emitted from the extruded plastics,be able to print their own parts for self-repairs and have some abilities to recycle.
Scott Crump,who helped develop 3-D printing technology in 1988 by making a toy frog for his daughter with a glue gun in his kitchen,said he never conceived how pivotal it could be for space travel. But he said that until metal becomes commonly used in 3-D printers,the applications will be limited.
NASA and other international space agencies are pressing forward with 3-D printing. Mastering space manufacturing,along with finding and producing water and food on the moon or other planets,could lead to living on space.
For Made In Spaces debut,when its shuttled up to the space station aboard a spaceflight cargo resupply mission,the initial prints will be tests. Theyre also discussing with NASA about what the first real piece that they should print will be.
Whatever it is,it will be a symbolic item sure to end up in a museum someday.