The 3-D Printing In Zero-G Experiment will employ the first device to produce parts in space using 3-D microgravity printing, according to NASA. The hardware, which builds objects layer by layer out of polymers and other materials, should be ready for launch to the ISS next year, NASA said. NASA's goal is to ship the 3-D printer to the space station aboard an American commercial resupply mission. Since retiring the space shuttle program, NASA has been trying to privatize its space program to develop U.S. spacecraft that can transport cargo -- and eventually, crew -- to the ISS.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden said the space agency is in need of "transformative" technology that can reduce cargo weight and volume. Shuttling cargo to the ISS is a long and expensive process, which can take months and cost thousands of dollars per pound. He said the 3-D printer could be the answer, giving astronauts the ability to print necessary components aboard the space station in about an hour.
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NASA sees other purposes for 3-D printers. They could be used with robotic systems to make tools for human missions to other planets, such as Mars. Astronauts on lengthy missions could print and recycle the tools they need, saving money and resources. 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, also has benefits for companies on Earth.
"The president's Advanced Manufacturing Initiative cites additive manufacturing as one of the key technologies that will keep U.S. companies competitive and maintain world leadership in our new global technology economy," NASA's associate administrator for space technology Michael Gazarik said in a written statement. "Taking advantage of our orbiting national laboratory, we'll be able to test new manufacturing techniques that benefit our astronauts and America's technology development pipeline."
Made in Space previously partnered with NASA to test its prototype 3-D printing equipment on suborbital simulated microgravity flights. Printing in microgravity poses environmental challenges, which Made in Space addressed by encasing its equipment in a special box that allows it to operate in zero-gravity. The 3-D printer will be tested to manufacture computer component boards first, later expanding to various tools and science equipment.
In a separate but related effort, NASA tapped Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to explore how 3-D printing potentially could be used for making food in space. The consultancy will conduct a six-month, $125,000 study around developing a 3-D printed food system for long-duration space missions. However, NASA said it will take several years for the food system to be tested on an actual space flight.