By C. Tod Pingrey
Faculty Member, Space Studies at American Public University
The latest printing technology–3D printing–has gone out of this world. NASA will soon take printing to a whole new level. On Sept. 23, the first 3D printer arrived at the the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule. .
3D printing is the process of building an object, layer by layer, out of many different types of material including metal, plastic, and composite material. There are high hopes that this new printing technology will expand the station’s manufacturing capabilities. Although having replacement parts sent to the ISS is costly and time consuming, this new capability is expected to decrease resupply efforts from Earth while cutting costs by creating the possibility of fixing station issues with just a switch of a button.
Having this new capability on board and orbiting the Earth will have a major impact of how NASA does business. Being able to produce a critical component in a very short time is extremely vital to any mission in space. Had this capability been in existence during the early years of Gemini, Apollo, or even the shuttle, it could have impacted the direction our manned space program. Maybe Apollo 13 would have made it to the moon instead of making an emergency re-entry back to Earth.
Is this the new technology what we need for the future of space exploration? I believe so. 3D printing provides a foundational technology needed to reach the goal of going to Mars and beyond. There is much research to be done, but one day the ISS may be a production hub to continue our journey of exploring our galaxy and beyond with manned space travel.
The effects are already being felt here on Earth. In light of this blossoming technology, companies are scrambling to crack into the market of 3D printing. As the demand for this type of printing increases, so will the need for training and distribution. One day, students in class will not need to bring a pencil to class–they can just print one.
About the Author
Professor Tod Pingrey is in his fourth year as full time instructor at American Public University teaching undergraduate space studies. He holds a B.S. in History from South Dakota State University, and an M.S. in Space Studies from AMU. Tod is a retired Army Space operations officer with 26 years of military service. His present job is Course Administrator for Space 200 working for the National Security Space Institute (NSSI) in Colorado Springs.