3D printers and NASA – Going where no printer has gone before!

One small 3D printer for man, one giant idea from NASA!

Well to be honest, it’s more like 3 giant ideas from NASA! More than most, the legendary American space exploration team realizes the potential versatility of 3D printers, and they are pouring money into research and development of a whole host of uses for 3D printers in space. With news and developments appearing almost daily, the boundaries of what 3D printers can do are seemingly being pushed all the time, and few are investing more money in its development than NASA. What 3D printers will ultimately enable us to do seems anyone’s guess and its uses are seemingly limitless, but for the moment there are 3 main areas of development coming out of the US space team that are particularly interesting.

1. 3D printed food

One of the most talked about ideas is NASA’s attempts to 3D print food for their astronauts. It’s easy to see why so many have been intrigued by the idea of printing food on demand, as it sounds (as with many things with 3D printing) like an idea from a Sci-Fi movie. I personally couldn’t help but think of the McFly family and hear “Mom sure can hydrate a pizza” in my head when I fist heard of NASA’s plan! 🙂 The food that the printer would actually make would be somewhat less exciting than the notion conjures in the mind. The reality would be less of a three course meal and more a case of a highly nutritious, dry, cookie-like substance designed more for nourishment than taste. It’s easy to see why NASA thinks 3D printing food is such a good idea – as with all additive manufacturing, waste is reduced to an absolute minimum and in some cases produces no waste at all. It would reduce the amount of supplies needing to be taken with the astronauts, and could provide food for longer stays in space, with the food being stored as a dry powder before being printed and not requiring any special storage.

 

2. On demand repairs

The benefits of being able to print replacement parts in space is HUGE! This slightly less glamorous idea is one which could transform space exploration. The ability to print damaged parts and even build new parts would dramatically change the turnaround time for repairs and increase the safety of those brave enough to venture off this planet.  Though when printer technology advances, entire space projects could be built and launched from space. Instead of manufacturing parts for a space station here on Earth before transporting to a shuttle and then launching into space, 3D printers orbiting the earth could fabricate the parts right there ‘on site’, removing the need for multiple trips to get supplies. Think about how much of a pain in the neck it is when you’re doing yard work and have to make multiple trips to the hardware store to get what you need to get the job done. The cost savings alone would make space exploration more affordable and would no doubt see a huge influx of investment.

 

3. Construction in space

3D printing parts for new constructions is one use of this technology in order to build in space, but even with this method you would have to transport all the raw material that would be used to print the required parts. Although quicker and easier to transport than Earth manufactured parts, this would be no small amount of supplies to get into space. One attempt to navigate this problem is by harvesting rock from the Moon’s surface and using it to 3D print buildings there. This could potentially make construction on the Moon a much more affordable (and viable) option, should it come into being. The basic idea is that the rock could be ground up to make a cement-like material and fed into the printer. The cement would then be printed layer by layer to build the required structure. Not having to transport supplies for construction would be a game changer. Maybe I should buy that acre of land on the Moon?

 

Science fiction or science fact?

Just when we may see any of these ideas in real world application is anyone’s guess, as too is what other things NASA maybe be using 3D printers for. There’s really no telling what else could be lurking in the research rooms of NASA HQ but it seems certain that 3D printing’s involvement in space exploration is going to be a lasting one.