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Orbital assembly

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The space launch of a 3D printer does not herald a brave new era — but it is a good start.

Perhaps the most famous DIY job ever done in outer space was performed in April 1970 after an explosion disabled Apollo 13 on its way to the Moon. The three astronauts on board the craft scrambled together a makeshift adapter from cardboard, plastic bags and duct tape to scrub poisonous carbon dioxide from the air.

What if they had had access to a device that could design and manufacture replacement parts to order?

Last year, an engineer demonstrated just such a device: a three-dimensional (3D) printer. Working for Made in Space in Moffett Field, California, the engineer spent an hour on the computer designing an adapter for the Apollo 13 scrubber, and the rest of the day printing it and demonstrating how it would work. Problem solved?

Perhaps it would be if every spacecraft had a 3D printer. Working with NASA, Made in Space is about to launch the first such printer into space (see page 156). If dreamers have their way, it will be the start of a new generation of manufacturing in orbit.

Imagine a rocket carrying little but a machine that can print the infrastructure for a colony on Mars. Or a spacecraft that can unfurl robotic tethers, printing and braiding giant ribbons into a starshade so that a telescope can stare, unblinded, at extraterrestrial worlds.

If this sounds impractical, it’s because it is. For decades, enthusiasts have dreamed up ambitious ways to manufacture structures in space. A 1970s concept known as the beam builder would have welded aluminium tubes together to create huge trusses spilling out of the back of the space shuttle. But in the 1990s, when countries began building hardware components for the International Space Station, they opted to do so in the familiar environment of planet Earth. Each large element was sent into space individually; only once aloft were the parts joined together to form the sprawling complex.

It would be wise to remember such lessons as the enthusiasm for 3D printing runs high. In July, a US National Research Council report concluded that there is a vast gap between what people think the technology can do and what it really can. It is all very well to pack a 3D printer for a journey to deep space — but what should a space traveller do when the printer itself breaks down? Carry a backup?

There is a place for 3D printing in space applications. Among other things, designers on the ground can dream up bizarre and fanciful parts, then print them regardless of many conventional design constraints. In principle, this means slimmer spacecraft that are cheaper to launch. That can be a big deal for an industry that must weigh every nut and bolt.

NASA is even talking about printing CubeSats, small box-shaped satellites that can be launched in flocks from a single launch vehicle or off the space station itself. A PrintSat, a CubeSat printed from a polyamide-based material, is slated for launch later this year as a test for how well such devices might survive in the harsh environment of space.

NASA is not alone. The European Space Agency is developing ways to use plastic and metal printed parts on the space station; the Italian Space Agency is hoping to send its own printer to the station in 2017.

Such experiments may not lead directly to a Martian base, but that is no reason not to encourage the fledgling technology. The maker ethos has permeated everywhere, it seems — even beyond the gravitational pull of Earth.

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Orbital assembly. Nature 513, 144 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/513144a

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