PLANT

NASA’s 3D printers will act as flying factories

Will reduce the need for astronauts to load up every tool, spare part or supply they might need.


MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – NASA is preparing to launch a 3D 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. Doctors use them to make replacement joints and artists use them to build exquisite jewelry.

In NASA labs, engineers are 3D printing small satellites that could shoot out of the Space Station and transmit data to earth, as well as replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive extreme temperatures.

For the first 3D 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 startup 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.
“Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3-D printed when they needed them?”

When staffing his start up in 2010, Kemmer and his partners warned engineers there would be ups and downs – nauseating ones. In more than a dozen flights in NASA’s “vomit comet” reduced-gravity aircraft, Made In Space scientists tested printer after printer.

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. A 3D printer could have solved the problem in minutes.

“Safety has been one of our biggest concerns,” said strategic officer Michael Chen. Sparks, breakages and electric surges can have grave consequences in the space station. “But when we get it right, we believe these are the only way to manifest living in space,” he said.

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 printed products into new ones. NASA and other international space agencies are pressing forward with 3D 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 Space’s debut, when it’s shuttled up to the space station aboard a spaceflight cargo resupply mission, the initial prints will be tests _ different small shapes to be studied for strength and accuracy. They’re also discussing with NASA about what the first real piece that they should print will be.

Whatever it is, it will be a historic and symbolic item sure to end up in a museum someday.

“It’s not something we’re discussing publicly right now,” said CEO Kemmer. Then, Jason Dunn, the chief technology officer, beckoned, dropping his voice as he grinned.

“We’re going to build a Death Star,” he joked softly, referring to the giant space station in the “Star Wars” movies that could blow up planets. “Then it’s all going to be over.”

©The Canadian Press