A few minutes after 2 AM tonight, a SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft will lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida carrying something that's never been taken into space: A 3D printer. When it docks with the ISS, it will deliver the first machine capable of making things in orbit—a huge step forward for exploration.
The idea of manufacturing in space is practically as old as the idea of space travel itself. Shooting things into orbit takes a remarkable amount of fuel, so putting even a small amount of material in space comes at a steep price. That's why the lure of a machine that can fabricate tools, parts, and even structures once in orbit is so attractive—but until tonight, it has never been tested using contemporary technology like 3D printing.
The mission patch.
The machine hitching a ride on the Space X cargo shuttle tonight isn't your average, off-the-shelf MakerBot printer. It's taken years to develop a machine that passes NASA's stringent safety inspections, not to mention the physics of zero gravity. Brad Kohlenberg, an engineer at Made In Space—the company that built the 3D printer from the ground up—told me about the process of designing a machine to work in space without actually being in, well, space.
"The printing process itself is very similar to plastic extruding 3D printers on Earth," Kohlenberg told Gizmodo over email, "but the adjustments that were needed to make the printer work both in micro gravity and aboard the closed-loop system of the ISS necessitated building a new printer from the ground up."
NASA contracted Made In Space to build the printer in 2010, and the company has spent thousands of hours testing printing technologies and eventually building their own machine, which itself was tested over the course of hundreds of test flights in NASA's modified Boeing 727, which simulates zero-g using parabolic flight paths. The elephant in the room—weight—was always an issue, but Kohlenberg says that "the requirements from NASA for this experiment were such that we did not have to do any additional mass reduction beyond our initial design."
Once the printer arrives on the ISS, it will be placed into something called the Microgravity Science Glovebox, which is exactly what it sounds like: a contained volume where experiments can be carried out in microgravity. There, it will cough to life and begin printing using ABS plastic—the same stuff you might buy for your Rep Rap or MakerBot.
The team at Made In Space will be able to operate the printer remotely from Earth, and the prints themselves will be simple, including tools and something called "test coupons," which Kohlenberg explains are designed to demonstrate "that the process works the same on the ISS as it does here in our lab."
Those finished coupons will be catching a lift back home on Dragon, which is the only cargo shuttle capable of bringing materials home from the ISS. Those little plastic tags will help Made In Space complete its next iteration of the printer—which will be launched into orbit sometime next year. "It's a landmark for humanity," says Aaron Kemmer, the CEO Made In Space, in a statement about the project. "For the first time in the history of our species, we will be manufacturing tools and hardware away from the Earth."
3D printing on Earth might seem like the stuff of hobbyists, and perhaps you've been disillusioned by the avalanche of doodads that it seems to be so good at creating. But projects like these (and similar ones here on Earth) are a glimpse at the far more massive breakthroughs rapid prototyping is pushing along.
If you're out around 2:14 AM tonight, take a second and wish a bon voyage to a little printer that could end up being a big step towards a new paradigm in space exploration.
All images via Made In Space.