Printed in Space

If your star tracker breaks on the way to the moon, just hit Command P.

Additive manufacturing could be used for creating concrete structures on the moon. (Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (Craft) at University of Southern California)
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Khoshnevis envisions mounting a giant 3D printer atop large rovers to fabricate lunar shelters layer by layer, and that’s just the beginning. “We have to have robotic systems that can [not only] build structures, they should be able to build other objects,” he says. “They should be able to build other robots.” Contour Crafting, he believes, could be used to construct an entire lunar town—landing platforms, hangars, habitat, manufacturing facilities, all made out of local materials.

“It’s not a trivial project,” says Khoshnevis. “But we love projects that are not trivial.”

Right now, the move toward in-space manufacturing is bottlenecked at the main place where new technology gets tested in orbit—the space station.

Like Taminger’s team, Made In Space has tested its printers on zero-G airplane flights, and the company is planning a suborbital sounding rocket mission that will provide a few minutes of weightlessness in which to test, instead of the usual 30 seconds at a time that airplanes provide. But these flights are small potatoes compared with sustained experimentation on the space station, and the queue for researchers to get lab time is long.

Made In Space doesn’t expect to get a test printer on the ISS manifest before 2014, and even then it would be just that: a test printer. Taminger hopes to fly a fully functional printer that the astronauts could rely on for spare parts and tools—that is, if NASA comes through with technology development money, which is always in short supply. “We’ll be ready to go [to the station] within two years of getting the funding,” she says.

Musso says the money situation is no better in Europe: “The space community is much more interested in other technology that will help the survivability of [crew members], the regenerative technologies for water and air. In the scale of priorities, additive manufacturing is not at the top.”

He says that when NASA first began its race to the moon, engineers were given carte blanche and all the money they needed to come up with whatever crazy idea might make it happen. Taminger agrees that NASA has gotten more conservative, and the agency may not be willing to take a risk on a new technology, even one that could potentially transform space exploration.

That conservatism has pushed Made In Space to search for private backers as a way to speed things up. Meanwhile, the company, which is based at NASA Ames Research Park at Moffett Field, California, gets by on small NASA grants.

As Dunn and his team flew repeated parabolic arcs in a modified Boeing 727 on a recent flight, experiencing weightlessness for under a minute at a time, they managed to print several items, including their first tool—a wrench.

“The wrench was built in eight minutes,” he says. “It’s a very small wrench.” While the airplane was falling through the sky, the team even torqued a bolt to demonstrate that their creation could be used in space.

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