We may talk about "space tourism" as a specialized form of space travel; even the most cutting-edge space exploration, though, is disconcertingly similar to the basic experience of Earth-bound voyaging. You pack your bags, trying your best to plan for every circumstance that might arise while you're away, and then you're stuck with what you've brought. In space's case, the suitcases in question may be spacecraft and the tools required may be slightly more complex than voltage converters and travel-size shampoos ... but the idea's the same: If you'll need something on your trip to space, you have to bring it with you.
That basic paradigm, though, is changing. This week, NASA announced a breakthrough: For the first time, humans have 3-D-printed an object to be used in space exploration from space itself. The item in question was appropriately meta: a faceplate for the 3-D printer that was recently delivered to the International Space Station, the laboratory that orbits some 240 miles from Earth.
"It's not only the first part printed in space, it's really the first object truly manufactured off planet Earth," Aaron Kemmer, the CEO of Made in Space, which built the printer for NASA, told NBC News. "Where there was not an object before, we essentially 'teleported' an object by sending the bits and having it made on the printer. It's a big milestone, not only for NASA and Made In Space, but for humanity as a whole."
That may be hyperbole, but it's also true. Space's suitcase paradigm has meant that using objects outside of Earth has required huge amounts of energy—and, with them, expense. That's the reason why, for example, space food so often comes in dehydrated forms (water adds weight to a spacecraft's payload) and why astronauts living in space drink their own recycled urine (same reason). Using 3-D printers, however, engineers on Earth can simply email or upload designs to spacecraft that can, in turn, print out the objects. Spacecraft can become industrialized.