One small step for 3-D printers, one giant step for space exploration

NASA is making preparations to send a small 3-D printer on board one of its space missions sometime next year. Although it would be the size of a regular kitchen microwave, it might just become one of the most important breakthroughs in space exploration over the last 30 years. Engineers at NASA are still only coming up with potential purposes for the machine, so far expecting it to serve as a full-time factory for necessary spare parts and equipment, a kitchen, as well as an indispensable tool in any future space colony.

3-D printers work by extruding multiple layers of plastic (or nutrients) on top of one another, resulting in its ability to manufacture virtually any design it is commanded to, with no human intervention other than the uploading of the blueprint. They have already been used to build furniture, jewelry, candy, and even an entire house, for only the fraction of the cost, every time. But for astronauts, it can greatly diminish the necessity of loading the spacecraft with every single tool, piece of spare equipment or supply that they only might end up needing during the mission. The engineers claim that, had Apollo 13 been carrying a 3D-printer on board of its 1970 mission to the moon, during which the astronauts had to use a plastic bag, some tape and a manual to craft a carbon dioxide filter holder, they would have made the part their lives depended on in a matter of minutes, and it would have fit much, much better.

So it is more cost and space-efficient than any viable alternative, and it can save lives of people in space. But the 3-D printer is just warming up. NASA is currently working on utilizing the printers so that they can manufacture food in deep space, allowing for astronauts to take a break from those toothpaste nutrients every once in a while, but also cancelling the practice of shipping additional food in case anything goes awry. The company NASA’s collaborating with on the project has already been able to print chocolate, and is currently working on expanding the space buffet.

But this could also be an essential step in any planet overtake humans may be considering in the future. If settlers were really to colonize Mars, as some companies are already skeptically announcing, the possibility of fabricating their own food using 3-D printers would certainly prove to be an invaluable asset. What else is there to eat on Mars anyway?

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