Build: Technology is advancing the ways we create, and experience, our spaces

Radically Altering Space Exploration—With a Printer

Already prevalent on Earth, 3D printers could be the tool that makes it possible to eventually colonize the moon.

The fundamental difference between exploring a new planet and colonizing it is the ability to create a suitable and sustainable ecosystem. It’s one thing to walk around on the moon, but it’s another to live there.

That the world is still waiting for a space colony isn’t a hardware issue. Humans have the technology to set up permanent structures on the moon. We just don’t have the money. Depending on the rocket and mission, it costs around $10,000 per kilogram to send something to space, and that’s just into low orbit. To land it on the moon, according to Astrobotic, would cost closer to $1.2 million per kilogram.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

At that price point, sending only one functional structure to the moon would be an enormous expense. Sending an entire colony of structures would be economically impossible. But in the future, we may be able to send moonward a robot that could use lunar soil and regolith as building material, creating lunar colonies well before any human being arrives. It might sound far-fetched, but thanks to 3D printing, it’s closer than it appears.

Los Angeles-based Contour Crafting has received grant money to design a building consisting of 90-percent lunar material. The London architecture firm Foster + Partners is working with the European Space Agency to design a four-person residence made with layers of lunar soil. And NASA itself has spent millions in prize money to sponsor its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge in hopes of creating sustainable housing for a journey to Mars.

While 3D printers aren’t yet building on the moon or another planet, they’re on their way: A business called Made in Space is already 3D printing on the International Space Station (ISS).

The company first 3D printed a tool in space in 2014, but the real breakthrough came in March 2016, when Made in Space sent the first commercially owned and operated 3D printer, called the Additive Manufacturing Facility, to the ISS. Since then, the company has printed more than 170 parts in zero gravity, from buckles to hinges to adapters—and is creating tools so gossamer-like in structure they couldn’t support their own weight if manufactured on Earth.

“We absolutely think that manufacturing is the key step for how we, as humans, explore and utilize space,” said Andrew Rush, the president and CEO of Made in Space. “With local manufacturing, we can make our missions much safer and more responsive—which changes the way we interact with space.” And with evolving networking capabilities, as environmental data is relayed back from space, design engineers and software developers will be able to develop and transmit the plans and instructions for new tools and perhaps eventually habitats for local (in space) 3D manufacture.

Local could mean the ISS—or even the moon or Mars. With high-speed, secure networking capabilities between Earth and non-Earth stations, eventually design engineers will be able to transmit plans and instructions for far-flung habitats to be 3D printed on-site.

But at just 2×4×2 inches, the current machine isn’t anywhere near large enough to build a habitable structure, and it prints its plastic parts using only three polymer materials (ABS, Green PE, and PEI/PC). That’s a far cry from the 40 different source materials available to 3D printers on Earth. It also took years to create a rugged-enough machine, as Made in Space can’t send a technician up to the ISS for routine maintenance.

“It’s kind of a crawl-walk-run approach that we have,” Rush said. “Designing a printing station that works without major maintenance for a decade, compared to traditional commercial 3D printers, is like a quantum leap.”

Despite the current limitations of manufacturing in space, someday it could expand our horizons further. Manufacturing tools for use in space—in space—could lead to enormous shifts in space travel. Currently, everything we send into space is designed to first and foremost survive the rocket. Designing things to instead survive 20 years of use in zero gravity is how we go from being explorers to settlers.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of BUILD, our discussion on how emerging technologies promise to change the way we design, create, and experience the places we live and work, from city centers to the remote villages of tomorrow.