Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A 3-D Printer Is Working in Space: Why That's a Big Deal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A 3-D Printer Is Working in Space: Why That's a Big Deal

Article excerpt

In what became a defining moment of 20th-century engineering, NASA scientists flurried to "invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole - rapidly" and made a filter using only materials available to the astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 lunar mission.

The evolving technology of 3-D printing has the potential to both streamline that type of zero-gravity problem-solving and move NASA closer to Mars exploration.

"Think of Apollo 13 when parts failed," Grant Lowery, marketing and communication manager for NASA's partner in 3-D printing, Made In Space, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2014. "No more duct tape, or square pegs into round holes in a panic."

NASA has encouraged 3-D-printing innovations with a high school student contest, giving the winner an opportunity to watch as astronauts print the design. The winning design came from Robert Hillan, now an engineering student at the University of Alabama. Mr. Hillan observed the printing of his Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool alongside NASA's mission control team on Wednesday, according to a NASA press release.

Hillan's used computer-aided design (CAD) to design the tool, a multi-purpose wrench with a Velcro strip for easy storage, Alabama.com reported.

"When you have a problem, it will drive specific requirements and solutions," NASA astronaut Tim Kopra told Hillan during the video chat. "3-D printing allows you to do a quick design to meet those requirements. That's the beauty of this tool and this technology."

The student's work highlighted another key benefit of 3-D printing. Engineers and designers can transfer templates they create on Earth to the International Space Station (ISS) by the "snail mail" of cargo shipments or send them remotely. This would shorten the time needed to problem-solve between astronauts and the engineers on the ground.

"When a part breaks or a tool is misplaced, it is difficult and cost-prohibitive to send up a replacement part," said Niki Werkheiser, manager of NASA's 3-D Printer program, in a NASA press release. "With this technology, we can build what is needed on demand instead of waiting for resupply. …

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