NASA 3D printer: The next revolution in space?

NASA 3D printer could be used to make tools and spare parts for the International Space Station by next year, instead of shipping them up from Earth. NASA is working with Made in Space to produce a 3D printer.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Tools and parts made by a 3D printer are displayed at Made in Space in Mountain View, Calif. One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is that you need to bring everything with you: tools, equipment, spare parts, satellites.

A California-based company that will launch a 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014 is aiming to change the way space agencies think about how they transport goods to the orbiting outpost. But, using a machine to spit out spare parts for the space station is only the beginning.

Built by the firm Made in Space, Inc., the first 3D printer in space will launch to the space station aboard commercial spaceflight provider SpaceX's Dragon capsule. The mission will largely be a proof-of-concept flight, in which astronauts will use the device to demonstrate its functionality in the microgravity environment, Mike Chen, Made in Space co-founder and chief strategy officer, told an audience at World Maker Faire in Queens here on Sept. 21.

While astronauts will initially use the 3D printer to create spare parts and tools for the space station. Made in Space is hoping "makers" on Earth will get a chance to flex their creativity by coming up with designs for science experiments, innovative projects and artwork.

"Once our printer is there, we're going to be opening it up to the world to print things in space," Chen said, while openly soliciting ideas and encouraging people to contact the company with thoughts.

If all goes well, a permanent version of the 3D printer will be launched to the International Space Station in 2015.

"The paradigm shift that we want everyone to understand is: instead of launching things to space, just print it there," Chen said. "Why would you go through all the energy to build it here and launch it, when you can just build it there?"

Made in Space was founded in 2010 with the mission of broadening access to space. "[I]t's really expensive and difficult to launch things into space, and that puts a real dampening effect on innovation," Chen said.

Having a 3D printing capability on the International Space Station will open up possibilities for the materials that can be produced in orbit, and the types of experiments that can be performed in space.

"Everything that you launch is going to have to withstand up to 9Gs in the rocket and crazy vibrations," Chen said. "Things in space are vastly over-engineered, really, for the first 8 minutes of its existence. Think about what you can do now that you have 3D printing capabilities on orbit. For the first time, we'll be able to design things for space that don't ever have to exist in a gravity environment."

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on SPACE.com.

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.