3D Printing in Space - Hype, Limits, and Opportunities

The National Research Council released an early draft of “3D Printing in Space” earlier this week. The report found that most there's too much hype around 3D printing, especially its use in space. But turning 3D printing into a useful technology may not be as straightforward as the report concludes. The limits Nasa faces in everything it does could stretch it research out over decades. Could that create gaps where amateurs can play?

Coverage in the mainstream media (NBCNews) and the 3D printing community (3dprint, 3ders, or inside3dp) goes no further than repurposing or summarizing the findings presented in the NRC’s press release. Similar articles in the new space media (Nasa Watch, New Space Journal) spurred space enthusiasts’ comments that ran the gamut from hard-nosed realism to starry-eyed optimism. Citizens in Space took a strong stance explaining why the NRC is wrong. (Spoiler: The NRC made weak assumptions that don’t consider how New Space will deliver low cost access to space)

But the report, and its coverage, glossed over a major roadblock that may keep Nasa from moving 3D printing into space anytime soon. Rather than rehash the press release (like everyone else), I’ll let you read the NRC’s infographic issued with the press release. (Nobody else seems to have done that - consider it my value add)

What it comes down to is 3D printing as a solution for space exploration is vaporware with a lot of potential to do a lot of amazing things. But that’s all there is - potential. It will take a focused multi-decade effort to find processes that work, define uniform standards, and figure out which jobs are most appropriate for 3D printing. 

The Made in Space 3D printer will create objects out of thermoplastics on the International Space Station in 2014. Source: Made in Space

The Made in Space 3D printer will create objects out of thermoplastics on the International Space Station in 2014. Source: Made in Space

Nasa will take the first steps towards that later this year when it installs Made in Space’s 3D printer in the International Space Station. According to the Nasa mission page, this demonstration project will print standardized objects for testing on the ground that will answer questions like:

  • Are space-made objects stronger or weaker than Earth-made objects?
  • Do space-made objects keep the same shape as Earth-made objects?
  • Do properties of space-made objects change as the plastic raw material ages in microgravity?

According to Made in Space, astronauts also will print tools and CubeSat parts to demonstrate 3D printing’s potential (more potential!) usefulness. It took Made in Space 4 years to prepare for the demonstrations. Nasa’s Langley Research Center has been working even longer on its metal-based EBF3 technology.

Of course there’s a catch

The NRC’s conclusion that 3D printing requires extensive, rigorous research to create a reality out of all the hype overlooks one thing: time. Turning 3D printing from potential to reality will require printing thousands of objects. However, astronauts must set up, monitor, and finish a 3D print job - that’s time and attention the astronauts don’t have. 

According to Nasa’s own Inspector General (PDF), the 6-astronaut crew on the ISS combined spend more time on research than the space agency and its partners originally planned - but that still only 35-40 hours per week. Which among the many competing priorities must Nasa cut in order to characterize 3D printers? 

Each Soyuz lifeboat only has room for 3. Who wants to get left behind? Source: Nasa

Each Soyuz lifeboat only has room for 3. Who wants to get left behind? Source: Nasa

The best answer would be to expand the number of astronauts. There’s only room on the station’s 2 Soyuz capsules for 6 people to return to Earth if something bad happens. Nasa’s Commercial Crew program - if it survives the budget cutters - will produce capsules that carry 7 people and let up to 14 people stay on the ISS. But then where is the budget for the extra supplies, habitation modules, and launches to support the bigger crew?

Turning the hype of space-based 3D printing will take more than engineering. With America’s budget reality and ever-expanding Nasa priorities, the space agency will only conduct a disjointed series of research projects over the coming decades.

Could these limits create opportunities for amateurs?

On a small scale, yes. Enthusiasts of both space and 3D printing can build DIY thermal vacuum chambers to test filament materials or printed objects. Sending filaments and printed objects into Near Space is just as straightforward. Amateurs may be able to conduct microgravity research once Virgin Galactic or XCor finally begin selling research space on their suborbital rocketplanes but the cost would be beyond the means of most amateurs.

It may take a collaboration between professionals and amateurs. A space-focused 3D printing company could crowdfund their research by offering objects printed in space as rewards for their backers. The project might not even need to send hardware into space. The conditions 30 kilometers above Earth’s surface are similar to those on the surface of Mars. Testing a martian 3D printer in Near Space would cost much less than trying to get hardware into orbit.

Longer term, space enthusiasts might be an important early market for 3D printing companies just as space tourists will for the suborbital rocketplane companies. Space-made trinkets could join space memorabilia and meteorites on the list of collectibles amateurs want to buy.

Purists may shake their head at the idea of space tchotchkes, but if the money's right who's to say it's wrong?