Made in Space
NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander aboard the International Space Station, holds the first object ever created in space using 3-D printing, in this November, 2014 photo.

Coming soon: 3-D printers recycle plastic in space

The first company to print 3-D objects in space will soon bring recycling to space. 

The first 3-D printer in space flew up aboard the SpaceX CRS-4 mission in September 2014. Now, Made in Space, the company that brought the 3-D printer out of earth’s atmosphere, plans to launch a printer into space that can recycle plastic, finally finding a use for those 10,000 Ziploc bags that NASA has sent up into space, says founder and chief technology officer Jason Dunn.

The entire printer is controllable from the ground, which minimizes using the resource that is most valuable in space: crew time.

“Manufacturing in space allows us to live off the land,” says Mr. Dunn, who spoke at the International Space Station (ISS) Research & Development Conference in Boston on Wednesday. Dunn says his goal is to make living in space “more sustainable.”

The machine that will recycle parts and trash is named R3DO. Made in Space plans to have R3DO operational in space in the next year and a half. This could bring about a dramatic shift in the approach to space travel, which today is, “a lot like a camping trip,” says Dunn. "You bring everything you need with you, and if something goes wrong, you go home.” 

The first object to be printed in space was made in November, with astronaut Barry Wilmore installing the printer. 

A “change in the way public and private investment occurs” has dramatically shifted innovation in space, says Julie Robinson, a chief scientist for the ISS at NASA, who also spoke at the conference. Currently, 50 percent of the research and development of NASA has transitioned to the private sector, a change from years past that is, “transforming NASA,” says Dr. Robinson. However, she admits, the combination of private and public enterprise is “not the way NASA would have thought to use the space station."

Private enterprise in space is a relatively new venture. NASA only recently released a report identifying eight potential areas where public-private joint ventures would be possible. Currently, Made in Space operates in conjunction with the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

One of the challenges in space is what to do if you need to make repairs on the spacecraft. With the current 3-D printer, those adjustments are possible, and use minimal crew time as the device is “very much automated,” says Dunn.

The 3-D printer is not limited to scientists only. Made in Space has accepted proposals (at a fee) for projects from anyone ranging from middle school groups to Fortune 500 companies. However, the company currently has far more demand than it is able to create, and thus will only print objects that it has deemed have legitimate value to the mission.

Scientists are hoping that the printer will facilitate possible missions to Mars, given that it takes about 9 months to reach Mars with current rocket technology, making it difficult to bring necessary parts on time in the event of an emergency.

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