3D Printing in Space
Over the course of human history, a general principle has emerged which seems to remain consistent to this day: that when time-relative breakthrough technologies are invented (in nearly all industries), they compound and bring about the development of more sophisticated technologies and/or significantly increase the efficiency of existing technologies.
The latter not only presents a fascinating way of measuring human intellectual and technological growth, but it also greatly excites the mind and imagination with endless possibilities for future developments. One such contemporary development that continues to be exciting is the 3D printing, and more specifically its recent newsworthy appearance with NASA in space.
It is widely known that NASA has been suffering over the past decades from a gradual decrease in government spending. This has negatively impacted, among other things, NASA’s ability to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), resulting in the use of private space company’s such as Space X to deliver essential payloads. Regardless of whatever means of funding a government organization or private company might have, getting a payload into space via rocket is costly, both in resources and time. However, due to NASA’s recent success with 3D printing in space, these costs can be alleviated, even circumvented. Having a functioning 3D printer aboard the ISS would mean that eventually, that is in the very near future, its occupants would be able to simply print most of the supplies that they would require on board instead of having to use a rocket to send up a payload. Current 3D printing technology is not developed enough to accommodate all of these possibilities, but the fact that NASA recently printed and successfully tested parts for rocket engines makes it seem like the road for further applications in space is rapidly being paved.
According to the article at cnet.com, NASA’s test consisted of firing up a rocket engine that generated 20,000 pounds of thrust, 10 times greater than any previous test on 3D printed parts. The particular method of 3D printing used by NASA is called selective laser melting and it “produces layers of nickel-chromium alloy powder”. These successful tests are prompting NASA researchers to seek out innovative ways to advance our endeavors in space, such as realizing how 3D printing in space might be able to allow for human crews to print out replacement parts, food, and other essential living needs. The latter would allow, among a trove of other things, greater time duration for crews on deep space missions.
This is all just the start, though. I would confidently argue that 3D printing in space is going to be a harbinger and integral foundation to the future success of our space endeavors. Think about it: once 3D printing technology explodes in usage and development in the commercial world, the increase in sophistication of 3D printers and the possibilities therein would be nothing short of extraordinary. Now imagine such sophisticated technology on an industrial, sub-orbital level; like a 3D printer the size of our current space station, capable of 3D printing deep-space drones/satellites for greater space exploration. This is just one possibility from a piqued imagination, but it is truly not out of the realm of possibilities. This is just the beginning.