3D Printing In Space: NASA’s Newest Marvel

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Ask Marshall Space Flight Center Engineer Ken Cooper what he likes about his job these days, and he'll quickly tell you.

"Just the fact that you can come to work, and maybe make something new every day. That you could not have maybe manufactured before," says Ken.  He's one of the Marshall workers making 3D printing a space-age reality.

On the International Space Station, men and women are busy working right this moment.  They eat, sleep, and use tools. They do just about everything we do here on Earth, except they're not able to run to the store to buy a new item to replace something broken.

Astronaut T.J. Creamer spent six months on the station. "I actually physically remember breaking a tool. Not that I was angry or was overly strong, just the tip broke off, and so now I have to wait to the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one. In order to be able to use that kind of tool, let's print it," says Creamer.

"Let's print it" sounds pretty optimistic considering nothing has ever been 3D printed in space before. On the ground though, 3D printing is making an impact. A rocket engine  test earlier this year featured a part made using the process, and Marshall engineers and technicians are busy making all sorts of 3D parts.

What excites everyone about this new manufacturing process is the fact that it's generally about half the cost of traditional manufacturing techniques, and it takes far less time.

"Our biggest thrust is going to be qualifying this brand new manufacturing technique for making flight hardware, because unlike casting and machining, which has been around for hundreds or thousands of years, this has only been around for 23," said Ken Cooper.

In the short time it has been available, the time and money saved  has certainly caught everyone's attention.

"Affordability is one of the key objects for SLS, so that's something that's very important to us," says Propulsion Engineer Erin Betts.  SLS, or Space Launch System is the replacement for the shuttle, and it's expected to fly well before the end of the decade. It'll still be years after a 3D printer makes it to the ISS, as the "3D Printer In Zero-G" project.

"I think 3D printing is going to be the next big leap for manufacturing in space,"says Ken Cooper.  At Marshall's lab, laser beams are used to harden liquid plastic into a desired shape. For parts made of metal a laser melts powdered metal into the desired shape. Both processes are like stacking a cake. In space the micro-gravity will mean doing things a little differently, because micro-gravity will likely make printing using liquid or powder impossible.

The problems, though, aren't insurmountable.

"Absolutely not! I think they're all engineering problems," said Cooper.  "We're not up against any physics problems. I think they're all solvable over time."

One of the reasons everyone is hoping the "3D Printer In Zero-G" project is successful is the fact that a crew on a mission to Mars will need a way to make things. There won't be re-supply missions. "It takes us the shortest amount of time to get something to Mars, six months duration, and that's only if the planets are aligned correctly. So, if we're going to send somebody up to Mars, you really want them to re-supply themselves right there," says Astronaut Creamer.

Re-supply in space won't be just for convenience. "Well, just think about it. If you used your last spare part and you're 200 days from home, there's no other way to get parts up there. Apollo 13 scenario, you break out the duct tape and you break out the 3D printer and you save your lives," says Ken Cooper.

For an astronaut, the idea of being able to manufacture in space is certainly exciting. And excitement for a man who's watched the Earth orbit from off planet is a big deal.

"In order to help the day be more efficient, help us stay ahead of the time line, help us accomplish the day's goals, to help us re-supply in real-time with the 3D printer, totally awesome," says T.J Creamer.

The men and women working on 3D printing say it's totally possible. It's just a matter of continuing to test here on earth, and start testing next year on the I.S.S. Right now, the test 3D printer for the station is set to be transported by SpaceX next June.

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