NASA is sending a 3D printer to International Space Station. With this move, NASA hopes that astronauts will be able to one day fix their spacecraft by cranking out spare parts on the spot. A company called Made in Space manufactured the printer in California. The printer among more than 5,000 pounds of space station cargo that’s stuffed into a SpaceX Dragon capsule was supposed to lift off before dawn on Saturday. Rainy weather forced SpaceX to delay the launch until Sunday. Besides real-time replacement parts at the station, NASA envisions astronauts, in the decades ahead, making entire habitats at faraway destinations like Mars.
“If we’re really going to set up shop on Mars,” we have to do this, Jeff Sheehy, NASA’s senior technologist, said Friday. “We really can’t afford to bring everything we need for an indefinite amount of time. We’ll need to get to the point where we can make things that we need as we go.”
It was designed to operate safely in weightlessness inside a sealed chamber. The printing process is the same as on Earth, creating an object with layer upon layer of plastic. Once returned to Earth, the little 3-D creations will be “pulled and twisted and peeled and subjected to a lot of tests to determine the quality of the parts,” said Sheehy. Combined with efforts on the ground to make 3-D rocket parts out of metal — even entire engines — the space demonstrations “will give us confidence that the stuff we make by this method, even though it’s new and innovative” does, indeed, have the durability of traditional parts, he said. The space 3-D printer is barely a foot tall, 9½ inches wide and 14½ inches deep, counting the knobs on the front. A commercial 3-D printer — twice the size and dubbed “big brother” — will fly up next year, followed by a grinding machine for recycling discarded 3-D pieces.