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3D Printing and Space: A Step Towards Self-Sufficient Space Missions

By Dick Weisinger

Advances in technology are making the idea of space exploration for commercial and recreational purposes a viable idea.

The cost of launching anything into space is expensive, but the cost of space launches and travel is dropping. Ten years ago, NASA estimated that the cost to put one pound of material into earth orbit was on the order of $10,000. Over the last decade though, the cost and reliability of putting objects into orbit have dropped substantially.

A major factor holding back space travel is a lack of self-sufficiency. It isn’t cost effective to have to send all materials along that will be used on a space mission. Solar energy generation is something that has been used on space missions for some time. A 3D printer aboard the ISS space station has also been used since 2014 for fabricating custom tools and parts. But the ability to grow food, generate oxygen, and build objects in space are all critical for self-sufficiency.

Jason Crusan, director at NASA, said that “with the advancement in advanced manufacturing here on Earth, new opportunities like 3D printers have come into play and are technically viable for us to use in space.”

NASA is creating a 3D print ‘refabricator’ that can create tools and parts with 3D printing and allow previously printed objects to be recycled, repurposed, and used for the 3D printing of a different object.

Using 3D printing in space has the potential to reduce the need to ship pre-built cargo into space. Crusan said that “even with our cargo flights today, the space in between cargo flights is three to four months at least, so our ability to be responsive there is still on the order of months, and the 3D printer could be responsive in the order of hours. It enables a whole new ability for humans to live off the planet.”

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