• Space Exploration

Printed in Space

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

  • By Mark Betancourt
  • Air & Space magazine, November 2012

At a recent conference on the future of aerospace, 27-year-old entrepreneur Jason Dunn outlined his philosophy of why, after more than 50 years of space exploration, humans are not yet living in space colonies. “Everything manmade that’s ever been in space had to be built and launched from the ground,” he says. “And that puts enormous constraints on what you can actually do in space, because everything has to survive launch. So how do you get around that?”

His suggestion: Don’t manufacture things on the ground.

Dunn’s Silicon Valley startup company, Made In Space Inc., would reinvent the space industry by putting into orbit a cheap, easy mode of manufacturing: the 3D printer. It doesn’t print in the normal sense. But like an ordinary desktop printer, it receives instructions from a computer (in this case a computer-aided design, or CAD, file). Instead of arranging patterns of ink on a 2D sheet of paper, the 3D printer builds a solid object. Whereas traditional manufacturing techniques start with a solid block and cut unwanted material away from it, 3D printing—also called additive manufacturing—builds up material in layers, producing precisely the object desired with almost no waste.

3D printing is a growing industry on Earth, and has the potential to change not just the cost and speed of manufacturing but also the design of everything from airplanes to buildings. It could, in theory, have an even bigger impact on the space industry. For example, a Mars robot probe “printed” from a CAD file in orbit could be made 30 percent lighter than one that has to withstand the stress of a rocket launch from Earth. Human interplanetary missions that don’t have to bring along spare parts—because they can be made en route—will have more room for necessities like food, water, and oxygen. Not only could 3D printing make human space exploration easier, it could make certain kinds of exploration possible.

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