After the 3D printing era has begun on Earth, astronauts are now preparing to bring one of these printers to the International Space Station, so that in the future, they won’t have to crank out spare parts in order to fix their spacecraft. Instead, they will simply print the part they need.
Produced by a Northern California company called Made in Space, the 3D printer will be sent to the International Space station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, together with 5,000 pounds of space station cargo, departing on Sunday.
Apart from the replacement parts that NASA envisions astronauts creating at the International Space Station, they hope to be able to create entire habitats in the decades ahead, on faraway destinations such as Mars. As Jeff Sheehy, NASA Senior technologist told reporters on Friday, if the U.S. would set shop on Mars, it would be ridiculously expensive to bring everything with us. Instead, he hopes that astronauts would reach a point where they can simply make the things that they need.
The 3D printer is extremely efficient at producing objects one would not expect. For instance, during an exhibition at the Kennedy Space Center, an air filter was printed similar to the model that Apollo 13 astronauts had created to survive the 1970 moon mission. Printing it took 5 hours.
The same company that just won the huge NASA contract to create the space capsules bringing US astronauts to the ISS by 2017 is also making the supply run: SpaxceX. On Sunday, at 1:52 AM, their unmanned Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off, in slightly better weather than Saturday (when the launch should have taken place).
The printer was especially designed to operate efficiently in weightlessness. It will be placed in a sealed chamber, and the printing process will be the same as on Earth, with successive layers of plastic being added to create an object.
Parts will then be returned to Earth and examined and subjected to tests so as to determine their quality.