NASA plans to take 3D printing to soaring new heights

The potential for 3D printing has been well touted both in the press and in previous blog posts. But a recent announcement shows more clearly than ever that the pending applications for the technology are as far and wide and the mind can imagine.


NASA reported just this month that it’s already building some of its customized spacecraft and instrument parts using 3D printing, and soon they plan on having the equipment for the additive manufacturing of tools and replacement parts available to their astronauts in space.

As a “flying factory of infinite designs,” the 3D printers would create objects by extruding them from long strands of material coiled around spools, creating everything from critical tools and machinery for times of emergency to small satellites that could launch from a space station and transmit data to earth.

Using computer-aided design (CAD) models to build object layer-by-layer from plastic, metal and other materials such as carbonfibers, the announcement from NASA reported that the space agency has already flown a 3D-printed battery case on a sounding-rocket mission and have manufactured components for their various rocket engines. In addition, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is currently working with a Made in Space, a Silicon Valley start-up, to get a 3D printer to the International Space Station by October.

And perhaps most true to the science-fiction/Star Trek nature of the additive manufacturing, NASA is also looking at the feasibility of building habitats and structures on other planets using soil, developing a 3D printed food system for long duration missions—making the concept of rationing unnecessary—and printing wood with the ultimate goal of growing trees in space.

NASA is part of a consortium of government agencies investing in America Makes, which has as its goal the incorporation of 3D printing into mainstream U.S. manufacturing.

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