3-D Printing: NASA’s Next Frontier3 min read

NASA is looking to boldly take 3-D printing where no 3-D printer has gone before. As NASA plans ventures deeper into space, flights that already cost millions of dollars will become more expensive. NASA could defray those rising costs by enabling crew members in space stations to print tools, replacement spacecraft parts and, eventually, even structures in which they could live on alien planets.

The aeronautical agency next year will fly the first 3-D printer to the International Space Station, where crew members will conduct the first 3-D printing tests in near zero gravity. The new process could help curb costs of delivering cargo to the ISS, such as sample containers, replacement parts, and other essential objects, said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for 3-D printing in zero-G at NASA.

3-D printer made by Made In Space Inc.

3-D printer made by Made In Space Inc.

It could also spare astronauts from having to wait for replacement parts. At $10,000 per pound, shuttling cargo into space is extremely expensive and slow, with six months or more before a shuttle can bring new supplies to the station. 3-D printing will allow members to make some objects in less than an hour. By increasing reliability on what the crew can build themselves, NASA will also decrease its reliance on commercial payload launch schedules, saving a considerable amount of money. Ms. Werkheiser said it’s too early to calculate how much NASA could save with 3-D printing, but said, “it will pay for itself a million times over.”

In 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, workers model an object on a computer and print it out one layer at a time, using plastic, metal or composite materials. The technology is gaining momentum across various industries for its ability to help companies get products to market faster, often at lower costs than traditional manufacturing processes General Electric Co. and Ford Motor Co. and are using 3-D printing to build parts for jet turbine engines and automotive fuel injection systems, respectively. Other companies are watching the space to see if it helps them gain more control over their supply chains.

Next August, NASA will aim higher — literally — by printing torque wrenches and other tools that have been digitally modeled on a computer in space. As part of a resupply mission, NASA will fly the ISS a special 3-D printer that can operate in microgravity. Because heat transfer doesn’t occur in microgravity, fluctuations during the printing process could occur, potentially weakening the plastic structure. To overcome this challenge, NASA is using a special printer built by 3-D printer makerMade in Space Inc., designed with a so-called microgravity glove box to create thermal flows in a gravity-less environment, “to make sure the product prints in equal and even layers,” Ms. Werkheiser said.

NASA will initiate the print process from the ground, observing its progress via cameras on board the station. ISS crew members will remove the printed object when it’s complete. At first, NASA will print objects using only plastic materials, but it is also considering the use of titanium and other metals in the future, Ms. Werkheiser said. The ability to print metals will enable crew members to print out replacement parts for space craft and other machines.

As Pete Basiliere, a Gartner Inc. analyst who covers the 3-D printing market, said, in space, “things happen, and they’re a long way from getting a spare,” he said.

Eventually — in what seems like science-fiction film fodder — NASA plans to pair 3-D printing with robotic machines to create habitats for human missions to Mars and other planetary destinations. Assisted by robots, crew could use soil or minerals found on the planet to print houses and laboratories. “You have to be able to live off the land,” Ms. Werkheiser said. Someday 3-D printing may even enable astronauts to build an entire craft in space, she said.

For now, NASA’s goals for 3-D printing  are more modest – that is, if you call printing out plastic tools while flying in space a modest goal.

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Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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