As exciting as the 3D printing revolution has been here on planet Earth, just imagine the possibilities when NASA can take 3D printing technology to outer space. We’ve already heard about NASA’s plans to support a new initiative to 3D-print food for long, interstellar missions to Mars – there’s also a plan to bring a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station. The debut of the Made in Space 3D printer aboard the ISS in 2014 – the first-ever 3D printer specifically engineered for the zero-gravity conditions of outer space – could unlock the potential of off-planet manufacturing and transform the future of space exploration.
Eventually, this 3D printing capability could be expanded to other planets, moons or asteroids. And that’s where this gets interesting. What if the future of off-planet manufacturing means the use of in situ materials? In other words, instead of bringing up PLA printer stock from planet Earth for the 3D printer, astronauts on the moon or Mars would be able to print housing, labs, free-standing structures, machines or tools from minerals or materials naturally occurring in the new environment. This is not just science fiction: the European Space Agency, in partnership with architecture firm Foster + Partners, is working on a plan to 3D print a lunar manned base from moon dust.
And there may be uses for 3D printing that have never ever been considered, that go well beyond just replacement parts or specialty tools. There may be uses for 3D printing that are literally out of this world. Now that NASA has begun training astronauts for Deep Space Exploration to places like near-Earth asteroids and Mars, we will need to think about new ways to get from here to there. What if, for example, there was a way to 3D-print spacecraft modules for ascent and descent from the surface of a planet? As a sign of what’s to come, 3D Systems and Planetary Resources recently announced a partnership that could see 3D printers being used to print parts for satellites, space telescopes or spacecraft headed to near-Earth asteroids.
Of course, things rarely work as planned. Just because the Made in Space 3D printer made it through the first round of micro-gravity tests is no guarantee that it will still be able to perform aboard the International Space Station or on the surface of the moon. In discussing their plans to 3D print a lunar base, the ESA and Foster + Partners mentioned a whole host of factors that have to be taken into account and that have no precedent on planet Earth. These include meteorites that hit the surface of the moon at extreme velocities (there’s no atmosphere on the moon to burn them up before impact). There are other caveats as well – who exactly is going to fix this thing at the International Space Station if it breaks down — the local IT guy?
Nevertheless, the concept of bringing 3D printing to outer space is one of those ideas that seems to make sense, if for no other reason than simple economics — it will make any mission to space cheaper. In the best case scenario, learnings and knowledge from zero-G experiments in 3D printing can be used to improve the capabilities of on-planet 3D manufacturing here on planet Earth. For example, 3D printing techniques used to print lunar modules or housing on Mars could be used to print low-cost, high-quality housing on Earth. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll view products Made in Space the same way we currently view goods made by hand — as artisanal objects representing the very best in human creativity and craftsmanship.