NASA says it will be ready to launch a zero-G-ready 3D printer into space in June 2014, in time for the fifth SpaceX resupply mission to the ISS. The agency has prepared a video, complete with upbeat muzak, that details not only how astronauts will be able to print objects on demand, but why they might need to do so in the first place. As astronaut Timothy "TJ" Creamer puts it, 3D printers will enable "Star Trek replication right there on the spot."
The ability to fabricate equipment in space could save NASA considerable time and energy. "As you might imagine on Space Station, whatever they have available on orbit is what they have to use," says Niki Werkheiser, NASA's lead on the zero-G project. "And just like on the ground, you have parts that break or get lost."
"Just like on the ground, you have parts that break or get lost."
NASA will be able to preload blueprints onto the hardware, but has the ability to upload new files from the ground as well; Creamer notes that astronauts may be able to "make things we've thought of that could be useful" as well as simply replacing old tools.
The printer is designed by Made In Space, and was recently verified to work in zero-G with an experiment conducted through NASA's Flight Opportunities program. While the project should be launched within a year, NASA's interest in the field gets even more ambitious — the agency is also funding research into how to 3D-print food such as pizza.