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NASA to use 3D printer in space
Aug. 19, 2013
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by Mark Ollig

With a working robot (Robonaut 2) already completing tasks onboard the International Space Station (ISS), NASA has decided to send up another high-tech device.

You’ve read about 3D printers in my Feb. 18 column. Soon, a 3D printer will be sent up to the ISS.

NASA’s “3-D Printing in Zero-G Experiment” was begun in October 2012.

This experiment was to prove the viability of using 3D printer hardware to “fabricate components and equipment on demand for manned missions to the space station and other destinations in the solar system,” according to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Made in Space Inc. of Moffett Field, CA, is a company which manufactures parts used in space. This company has built and tested the new 3D space printer.

“In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space,” explained NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?” suggested Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space.

To me, this is all starting to sound like a “Star Trek” episode, where the crew uses the ship’s replicator to create a needed part or tool.

Testing of the specially designed 3D printer in near-zero gravity conditions or microgravity, was successfully completed onboard an airplane known as a “reduced gravity aircraft.” This aircraft flies a series of parabolic flight maneuvers which counter the forces of gravity on Earth. While in the air, each parabolic flight can simulate temporary states of near-zero gravity for about 20 seconds.

This 3D printer uses extrusion additive manufacturing; objects are created layer-by-layer from polymers and other materials.

A video by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, explains how problems onboard the ISS will be solved by using the 3D printer.

“3D printing provides us the ability to be able to do our own Star Trek replication right there on the spot to help us replace things we’ve lost, replace things we’ve broken, or maybe make things we’ve thought that can be useful,” said NASA astronaut Timothy “TJ” Creamer.

Parts to be 3D printed include frequently used shelving accessories.

A 3D printer delivers advantages to the ISS astronauts and mission specialists; such as not having to wait for replacement parts to be sent from Earth.

Made in Space is responsible for designing the 3D printing hardware, and NASA is providing insight into key design areas and into the testing for flight certification, according to Niki Werkheiser, 3D Print project manager in the Marshall Space Flight Center Technology Development & Transfer Office.

Programming instructions on how a particular part is to be printed can be preloaded onto the 3D printer itself, or uploaded from Earth.

“The ability to not have to manifest mass and launch it to resupply ourselves is the most important,” reasoned Creamer, in reference to the advantages of making parts using 3D printers while in space.

Allowing ISS crew members the capability of creating parts needed using a 3D printer instead of having to include the parts in future cargo shipments from Earth, will result in real cost savings. Although it is too early to know for sure the amount of cost savings it will be significant; “it will pay for itself a million times over,” said Werkheiser.

Not only will NASA save time and money using a 3D printer for creating or replacing parts and tools needed onboard the ISS, 3D printers will prove to be essential when we begin future deep-space missions.

“The greater the distance from Earth and the longer the mission duration, the more difficult it is to resupply materials,” said Werkheiser.

“We also look forward to using this technology as an educational tool offering students the opportunity to design and build parts for missions,” she added.

When humans eventually go to Mars, I predict a few 3D printers will be accompanying them on the voyage.

To boldly go where no 3D printer has gone before seems to be the latest mission for Made in Space, as they state on their website: “The Made in Space and NASA team envisions a future where space missions can be virtually self-sufficient and manufacture most of what they need in space. This includes such things as consumables, common tools, and replacements for lost or broken parts, and eventually even such things as CubeSats (small, deployable satellites).”

NASA has scheduled a June 2014 cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Included with this mission’s shipment will be the new Made in Space 3D printer hardware.

It will be packaged with other cargo onboard a SpaceX designed Falcon 9 rocket, and stored inside the Dragon pressurized space capsule attached to the top of the rocket.

You can watch “3-D Printing in Zero Gravity,” the video uploaded by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, at http://tinyurl.com/Marshall3D.

The website for Made in Space is http://www.madeinspace.us.


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