3D printers are in the news all the time these days. What was once just an idea quickly evolved into an existing technology that now saves thousands upon thousands of lives every year. What if scientists could use 3D printing technology to make space safer for astronauts? Thanks to Lowe’s, they have, and the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) is awaiting the delivery.
The Evolution of Space Travel
During the Apollo 13 mission, a group of astronauts dealt with some very unfortunate events that thwarted their mission to walk on the moon. As time went on, the mechanical failures they experienced jeopardized their very lives. If the crew could not come up with a carbon monoxide filter, crafted from nothing but what they had available to them on the tiny spacecraft, they would suffocate before they made it back to Earth. Many hours later, they made something work, but what if they would have had a 3D printer to just make whatever they needed to save their lives?
Just a few days ago, Made in Space (a company that manufactures many items you would find on the ISS and other types of spacecraft, along with American home improvement supplier Lowe’s, announced that they will launch the world’s first commercial 3D printer into space for delivery to the ISS before the end of March 2016. The technology is absolutely mind blowing, but the truth is, it can – and almost certainly will – save lives.
How it Works
According to the manufacturers, the process is something straight out of a science fiction book. For instance, assume that the ISS experiences some sort of malfunction and the tool that the astronaut needs to fix it is missing. Under normal circumstances, this would require a rocket launch with that tool on board, a very complex docking procedure, and a somewhat dangerous mission to retrieve the tool from the spacecraft once it docks. With new 3D printing technology, the astronaut simply calls down to mission control and request the tool. A design team will sketch out the model, print a prototype, and get approval from NASA. Then, they just beam the schematic to the 3D printer on the ISS, where a new tool arrives like magic.
At first, you might find yourself wondering why a home improvement store like Lowe’s would be involved in such a groundbreaking mission. Lowe’s sees the value and the potential of 3D printing and continues to explore it. In fact, the company set up a 3D printer in one of their California supply stores, and customers regularly come in to print replacement parts for antique furniture that cannot otherwise be replaced. With the help of its customers, the retailer continues to discover more innovative uses for the technology and plans to incorporate it into stores nationwide.
Printing things in space might seem like a pipe dream, but Made in Space and Lowe’s claim it will be a reality in less than six months. With technologies like this on Earth and beyond, terms like safety and accessibility take on brand new meanings.