With the US Space Shuttle program ending, the US now relies on other countries for supplying the International Space Station. Made in Space, a startup located in Silicon Valley came with a solution for this problem. They aim to get a 3D printer into the space station by 2014. When the ISS has a printer and feedstock on board, the only thing the astronauts need is a CAD file (which can be e-mailed) of whatever needs to be added or replaced. The printer will then make the product in space with as result that no supplying flights have to be necessary.
To make sure this printer will function in space, the Made in Space team tested the 3D printer under reduced gravity conditions. They did this using the so called ‘Vomit Comet’, an aircraft putting them on a two-hour reduced-gravity flight using a parabolic flight pattern. The total time the Made in Space team had to print a part was about 20 minutes. Therefore they needed to print a small part. They decided to print a wrench, which became the first-ever tool produced in partial gravity. Made in Space engineer Dr. Jason Dunn said that the best thing about printing in space is that you don’t have to consider gravity while designing parts. Also, sensitive tools would no longer be modified to survive intense vibrations and g-loads present during a launch.
The future possibilities
NASA already reacted positively to this program and supports new ideas like this one. What makes the 3D printer in space even cooler is that in the future 3D printers could even use extraterrestrial soil as feedstock. Lunar regolith for instance could take the place of cement powders in some types of printers.