A Reality Check for 3D Printing in Space

A National Research Council study tries to rein in the hype.

Left your wrench back on Earth? No problem.

Like nanotechnology and genetic engineering, 3D printing is one of those technologies that makes the futurist’s heart beat faster. Everything will be different, or so they say, when desktop machines can churn out physical objects as easily as they print your family photos.

“Additive manufacturing,” as practitioners call it, also has great potential for use in space. But the National Research Council is here to tell you: It’s not ready for prime time just yet. “Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” says the NRC in its just-released report on 3D printing in space. Former Air Force Major General Robert Latiff, who chaired the study committee, said in a press release, “For in-space use, the technology may provide new capabilities, but it will serve as one more tool in the toolbox, not a magic solution to tough space operations and manufacturing problems.”

For one thing, additive manufacturing typically requires a good deal of human involvement, even if it’s just moving parts from one machine to the next. That’s not an option when astronaut crew time is allocated down to the minute. And 3D printers that use metal require lots of power, another scarce commodity in space.

Still, the NRC panel wholeheartedly believes NASA and the Air Force should keep developing this capability, and should use the International Space Station as a laboratory.

NASA’s already on it.  Made in Space has a prototype printer heading to the station in September to begin tests in orbit. 

This short NASA clip shows the Made in Space hardware under evaluation at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama:

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