Your children will thank you ... for additive manufacturing

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for a 4.5-sq-in faceplate that secures the wiring in the extruder on the 3D printer at the International Space Station (ISS). This week, the ISS commander, NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore, 3D-printed that faceplate. In spaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.

Well, maybe “thankful” is too strong of a word to be throwing around about a replacement print-head faceplate that’s just 7.6 cm by 3.8 cm and a quarter-inch (6 mm) thick. I’m more thankful for all of the special people in my life, namely family and friends. They’re a big deal.

The 3D-printing of that tiny little faceplate is kind of a big deal, too; it’s the dawn of a new age in manufacturing and a new frontier for mankind.

Once the results from this experiment, essentially printing the faceplate and other test coupons, are analyzed and compared to those of the same parts 3D-printed on the same machine earlier this year at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, we’ll have an assessment and verification of whether 3D printing works the same in a microgravity environment as it does on Earth. After that, the sky’s the limit. Imagine access to a 24/7 machine shop. In spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.

The 3D printer, which is just short of 10 in wide, came to the ISS in September via the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship, a robotic spacecraft which also carried mutant fruit flies and a mouse X-ray machine. Contracted to fly at least a dozen resupply missions to the ISS, SpaceX (www.spacex.com) has a $1.6 billion agreement with NASA (www.nasa.gov), part of the switch to private-sector schlepping of supplies to the space station. The September flight was SpaceX’s fourth to the ISS.

Orbital Sciences (www.orbital.com), whose Antares rocket exploded after ignition and liftoff in October, is contracted by NASA for almost $2 billion to fly eight resupply missions to the ISS. The failed launch was the third of those scheduled cargo shipments; to meet its 20,000-kg contract requirement, Orbital will use a bigger payload module, built by Italy’s Thales Alenia Space, on the remaining missions.

SpaceX and Boeing are the primary beneficiaries of almost $7 billion set aside by NASA to support companies developing space taxis that will carry astronauts to and from spacecraft and space stations, conceivably even those outside of Earth’s orbit. And the ability to design and manufacture parts without the need for production capabilities on Earth gives much longer legs to space schlepping.

The advent of 3D printers to the ISS means hardware can be designed on Earth and digital files can be transmitted to space, where the product can be printed, all in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost it used to take to design, prototype, manufacture and then send hardware into orbit and beyond. Before the Made In Space printer headed into orbit, it was loaded with the first files for printing, but that won’t remain the case for long.

Also in the initial experiments, ABS plastic needed to be sent along with the printer for the tests, but in the future materials may be gathered from anywhere—an asteroid, a moon, or perhaps a decommissioned satellite ready for recycling.

NASA’s Wilmore set up the printer inside the ISS’s experimental Microgravity Science Glovebox in mid-November, and only two calibration passes were needed before it produced the faceplate. This printer is capable of making smaller parts out of ABS plastic, which is the same material I use in my own 3Doodler printing pen (www.the3doodler.com) and the same material used to make Legos. 

After the initial parts return to Earth and are tested and yield a variety of information on criteria such as flexibility, torque and tensile strength, Made In Space will ship a larger commercial printer that can create parts from stronger, higher-temperature plastics to the ISS in early 2015.

Here’s the payload: The plan is for individuals and businesses on Earth to have access to the second printer and be able to manufacture hardware. Yes. You can print something. In spaaaaaaaaaace. OK, that’s the last time I’ll do that, but I thought that one was particularly appropriate. After all, have you ever been to space?

That’s what I thought.

When you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with your family and maybe some friends, look around the table and appreciate the people you’re sharing that delicious feast with. Then steal a glance over at the kids’ table, knowing that they might very well be the first generation for whom space exploration is more than a sci-fi-based reality reserved for the government-selected few. The 3D printer may be a small step for mankind, but it probably will become a giant leap for our cosmonaut descendants.