I was sort-of watching the news the other night, paying the usual amount of attention – half focused on murder, misery, death and destruction, half focused on Clash of Clans – when an interesting combination of phrases caught my ear. Star Trek. 3D printing. Space. It was enough to get me to put the iPad down.
I had to dig a bit to find more on the story on the Internet after the fact, but fortunately I live in Central Florida, where rocket launches still make the news. The local reporter who’s been covering the space program since I can remember (and has spent a lot of time doing the weather since the end of the space shuttle program) seemed particularly enthusiastic about this story, so I tuned in.
The story was that a 3D printer would be on board the latest spacecraft to head to the International Space Station, a Dragon spacecraft launched via Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX has sent a number of spacecraft to the ISS from Cape Canaveral, but this is the first time one will carry a 3D printer that can function in zero gravity. According to Gizmodo, California-based Made In Space was contracted by NASA to build the printer in 2010, and it’s taken thousands of hours to develop a device that not only passes NASA’s safety inspections but is capable of functioning in space.
3D printing, of course, has been a huge buzzword both within our industry and in the mainstream, for different reasons. It’s an interesting concept with many applications, from building replicas of Stephen Colbert’s head to car parts to guns, and even inkjet cartridges. There are medical uses (it was a major story arc on Grey’s Anatomy so it must be true) and recreational uses. It’s a potentially huge market.
The OEMs agree. In 2013 HP CEO Meg Whitman pledged to enter the 3D printing market. Earlier this month Ricoh announced two “Ricoh Rapid Fab” facilities to support the launch of an additive manufacturing business centered on 3D printers. Dell began selling MakerBot 3D printers earlier this year, and in June Konica Minolta entered an agreement to distribute 3D Systems’ portfolio of products. I got to see 3D printing in action at the Konica Minolta press event in July, and yeah, it’s pretty cool.
But for all the talk of 3D printing and opportunities surrounding it, it’s never really caught my interest until now. Because when I heard that a 3D printer in space could eventually function like a replicator in Star Trek, 3D printing suddenly became interesting.
The potential offered goes far beyond just pressing a button on a replicator and requesting “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” As the reporter pointed out, 3D printing opens up a whole world of possibilities for exploration and even colonization. One of the biggest hindrances of space is the difficulty in just getting things there. Space, after all, is far away, and weight is a big issue on space missions. Exploring Mars, for example, is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is the logistics of getting the necessary materials needed for exploration to Mars. The ability to “print” the necessary equipment on site would have an enormous impact on what we’re capable of up there. We could colonize, explore, develop … all with materials created on a printer.
During the days of the space shuttle it was traditional around here to run out the door on launch day and look up and east – and see all your neighbors doing the same – to watch the big speck of light shoot off into space. Since the shuttle program ended some of us die-hards still run out to see the tiny speck of light that is the Atlas V or Falcon 9 rocket, but it’s never been as impressive or felt as meaningful as the days of the big shuttle missions. But I have newfound respect for that tiny speck of light that shot up early Sunday morning, because it’s a little speck of light that holds a much littler printer, but a huge amount of potential for the human race.
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