When the first 3-D printer designed to work in weightlessness is sent up to the International Space Station, as early as next week, it will mark one small step toward a giant leap for manufacturing in outer space.
"Imagine if you're going to Mars, and instead of packing along 20,000 spare parts, you pack along a few kilograms of 'ink,'" NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said in a video recorded in March before starting his stint on the station. "Now you don't even need to know what part is going to break. You can just print out that part. ... I really like that, and it'll be fun to play with that in orbit."
3-D printers already have started a revolution on Earth: The devices deliver precisely aimed squirts of plastic or metal to build up shapes in accordance with a preprogrammed design, to make objects ranging from customized action figures to prosthetic arms. Some machines have price points that are less than $1,000.
But building a 3-D printer to work in space is something else. In the weightlessness of space, all the machinery and the plumbing have to work differently. That's been the focus for a Silicon Valley venture called Made In Space, which built the machine destined for the space station.
"Believe it or not, the actual extruding of the plastic onto itself does work in zero-G," Brad Kohlenberg, the company's business development engineer, told NBC News. "But you could have a problem with the belts and gears that are used to control the positioning of the apparatus. You want to make sure those don't float in zero-G."
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Made In Space has received more than $825,000 from NASA, plus a lot of help from the space agency's engineers, to get this demonstration off the ground. "NASA has been wanting to grow the area of in-space manufacturing," NASA project manager Niki Werkheiser said in a video. She said the space station will serve as a test bed for 3-D printing technologies that could be applied to deep-space exploration.
During ground testing, Made In Space's printer has fabricated 3-D-printed tools that could have come in handy for NASA's past "MacGyver" moments — including the duct-tape air filter that saved Apollo 13's astronauts in 1970, and the modified toothbrush tool that spacewalkers used when they fixed the space station's power system two years ago.
Kohlenberg said the printer could be employed for future fix-it tasks. "There could be a situation where you don't have just the right tool lying around, and you have to makeshift a solution," he said. Engineers on the ground could come up with the design for a spare part or a new kind of tool, and upload it to the station for manufacturing.
The demonstration printer is ready for delivery during SpaceX's next Dragon resupply mission, which is scheduled for launch on Sept. 19. It's capable of producing plastic objects measuring up to 5 by 10 by 5 centimeters (2 by 4 by 2 inches), over the course of 15 minutes to an hour.
Made In Space's 3-D printer won't be put into operation immediately. The astronauts have to conduct other experiments before they can put the machine into the space station's microgravity science glovebox as a safety precaution and turn it on. That's expected to happen early next year.
If this printer works the way NASA and Made In Space hope it will, an industrial-scale printer known as the Additive Manufacturing Facility, or AMF, would be built for the space station. "AMF is a machine shop in space," Kohlenberg said. "It's about twice the size of the first printer. It can use more materials, and it will draw upon lessons learned from the first demonstration."
The AMF is tentatively scheduled for launch in late 2015, Kohlenberg said.
Looking farther down the road, Made In Space is working on a device known as R3DO (pronounced "Redo") to recycle plastic aboard the station. "The idea is to not just use our own plastic," Kohlenberg said. Theoretically, spacefliers could recycle plastic bags and other cast-off material.
A recent report by the National Research Council says 3-D technology isn't yet ready to make a substantial contribution to space operations. The panel behind the report said there are too many unknowns yet to be resolved — for example, how well 3-D-printed materials will stand up to the rigors of outer space. But those are the kinds of questions NASA and Made In Space hope to answer in the years ahead.