First 3D printer will launch to International Space Station in 2014

The long axis of the International Space Station attaches to the main solar power truss with 10 massive struts that connect the central S0 truss segment to the Destiny laboratory module. Despite constant stress and strain, engineers say the struts are in no danger of failure through the expected life of the program.
NASA

When SpaceX's Dragon capsule takes off in 2014, there will be a 3D printer on board. When it reaches the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts will use it to create spare parts and tools.

If all goes well, a permanent version will be sent to the ISS in 2015.

"Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station," Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space, writes on the company's website. NASA contracted Made in Space to create the zero-gravity 3D printer.

"Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?" he added.

The printer is about the size of a microwave. Made in Space is still testing it to prove that it can withstand the extreme vibrations associated with lift-off. The SpaceX mission will be the final test.

Having a 3D printer on board will increase astronaut safety while lowering mission budgets.

"The paradigm shift that we want everyone to understand is: instead of launching things to space, just print it there," Made in Science co-founder Mike Chen said while speaking at the World Maker Faire on Sept. 21. "Why would you go through all the energy to build it here and launch it, when you can just build it there?"

Chen went on to explain that having the printer at the ISS will allow for more design creativity.

"Everything that you launch is going to have to withstand up to 9Gs in the rocket and crazy vibrations," Chen said.

"Things in space are vastly over-engineered, really, for the first 8 minutes of its existence. Think about what you can do now that you have 3D printing capabilities on orbit. For the first time, we'll be able to design things for space that don't ever have to exist in a gravity environment."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.