NASA has been testing 3D printing in space, and this is an interesting development because this could eventually lead to having the space agency “print” a number of replacement parts. Clearly, when you are in the space station, getting parts shipped to you is more than problematic since a launch to space can cost half a billion dollars.
NASA Astronaut Timothy “TJ” Creamer himself says that this would get NASA one step closer to the holy grail of on-site manufacturing: Star Trek’s “replication” system. Although relatively primitive and limited, the ability to build little parts could change everything: today, NASA astronauts can only rely on what’s available on hand. There are a number of small parts that could be easily lost, especially during space walks. Right now, the solution is to have spare parts, but being able to manufacture, or design, new parts in space would be much more cost-effective since a space launch can cost half a billion dollars.
Since 3D printer technology may be affected by a no-gravity (or small-gravity, micro-gravity) environment, NASA is currently asking potential vendors to test their equipment in zero-gravity planes. We can expect that further testing will be needed before any launch to space, but it’s not hard to be optimistic about the future of 3D-printing in space. In the meantime, 3D-printing continues to evolve and the variety and quality of the materials continues to improve.