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When listing the things you might need on a manned space flight, a 3-D printer is probably not even close to the top. But in a way, it makes total sense. Why use up valuable space and weight with replacement parts you might never need when you can instead create them on the fly with a 3-D printer and enough raw materials to cover contingencies?
NASA announced in a video (below) it is definitely planning to send up a printer to the International Space Station. Currently, the printer is scheduled to go on SpaceX‘s fifth resupply mission, which is slated for mid-2014.
“3-D printing provides us the ability to do our own ‘Star Trek’ replication right there on the spot,” NASA astronaut Timothy “T.J.” Creamer says in the video. The printer would “help us replace things we’ve lost, replace things we’ve broken or maybe make things that we’ve thought of that would be useful.”
Not only will NASA be able to load software for known items into the printer prior to launch, but it will also be able to design new items on the fly. The occupants of ISS will be able to start using these new parts as soon as they are printed out, instead of waiting for the next resupply mission. While the idea of printing out foodstuff with this run is probably not going to happen, that doesn’t mean NASA hasn’t been thinking about it.
As I’ve mentioned before, key patents for a common type of 3-D printing will expire next year. This is perfect timing for the mission, as the cheaper, more prevalent printers that will become available will allow the mission to select the best option for its needs.
Of course, there are all sorts of technical questions, such as whether someone can make a 3-D printer that can withstand the rigors of a launch, or what effect the micro-gravity of orbit would have on the printing process. Though the first issue can be accurately predicted through simulation, the second might have to wait until it is actually churning out something aboard the station.
If they can work out all the kinks, this idea could save the space program a fair amount of money, while serving the astronauts’ need more efficiently.