In a pivotal scene of Apollo 13, we saw astronauts improvise a rig to fit a square cartridge to a round Lunar Module adapter in order to facilitate a safe return home. Fortunately the crew and ground teams had the right tools and ingenuity to avert disaster. Now imagine a scenario where ground control simply sends a digital part design to the spacecraft and astronauts 3D print the part. That is exactly what NASA envisions in the near future.
In order to survive long-term in space, it will be vital for astronauts to have the ability to create a variety of things in space. NASA recognizes the potential for 3D printing to provide the flexibility and functionality to build what is needed, when it is needed. To that end, they’ve funded a start-up called Made In Space to develop the technology.
NASA recently shared the first step of this process at its research park in Silicon Valley. On March 23, a 3D printer capable of operating in zero gravity will be shot into space and delivered to the International Space Station. It will be used to perform experiments and to make spare parts.
“You can bring us a USB stick with your file, and we can digitally send it to space,” Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space, told the BBC. “Via 3D printing we can make that object and completely avoid putting it on a rocket.”
In addition to the small-scale 3D model soon to be launched, Made In Space is working on a project called Archinaut, which will enable the manufacture of large and complex systems that could be assembled in space.