3D Printing Is Going to Space
The startup Made in Space is employing advanced 3D printing to build objects in orbit
If you’re a nerd like me, the image of a half-constructed, almost skeletal second Death Star from Return of the Jedi is permanently lodged in your brain as one of the most majestically ominous creations in all of cinema.
George Lucas’ vision of building massive superstructures directly in outer space is iconic, but it’s hardly the first of its kind. The idea of manufacturing whole spacecraft or space stations that never touch Earth, that are fabricated and assembled directly out in the void where they will be operating, is one of humanity’s oldest science fiction dreams, dating back to antiquity, before the genre of sci-fi as we know it was even invented.
But now, outer space manufacturing is about to become a reality, albeit at a much smaller scale than the Death Star. The real-life Florida startup Made in Space recently won a $73.7 million contract from NASA to use, over the next three years, what’s essentially an advanced space-grade 3D printer to print out wings for a spacecraft while it orbits Earth.
Made in Space is pursuing something altogether more ambitious: producing whole new pieces of working equipment from raw materials in outer space — and doing so in a matter of days.
“We’re focused on the industrialization of space and moving the means of production into space,” said Justin Kugler, vice president of advanced programs and concepts at Made in Space, in a phone interview with OneZero.
To be clear, humanity has already gotten fairly good at assembling stuff in space — connecting one craft or piece of equipment to another using specialized tools, computers, physics, and robotics. That’s how the International Space Station and orbital laboratories from China and Russia were all put together over the years. But Made in Space is pursuing something altogether more ambitious and trickier: actually producing whole new pieces of working equipment from raw materials in outer space—and doing so in a matter of days.