On Sunday 21st September, a 3D printer was blasted into outer space for the first time in history, fuelled by groundbreaking visions of astronauts in orbit printing spare spaceship parts – crucially when existing ones might break. The printer, carried by a SpaceX cargo ship, is now aboard the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting earth, and could be the beginning of a replicating revolution, with the potential to prolong astronauts’ ability to stay in the celestial beyond.
This leap in technology sparks some deja vu, particularly in a generation familiar with Star Trek – The Next Generation. Aside from the memory of Patrick Stewart’s rich, chocolatey baritone reading out the starship mission at the beginning of each episode, the series also introduced the term ‘replicator’, which was described as a 24th century advancement from the 23rd century ‘food synthesiser’ imagined in the original series of Star Trek. The replicator could magic up any inanimate matter, as long as the desired molecular structure was on file.
A step beyond silly Cyborgs and pointy-eared Vulcans, there is now a modicum of truth in this Sci Fi projection. Earlier this year, mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor showcased a prototype of a printer producing fully-formed pizzas. With NASA looking for a solution to space food with a slightly longer shelf-life, or simply satiating those poor astronauts pining for Dominoes on a Friday night, ingredients were processed and freeze dried before being sent off into the cosmic abyss to be stored for a very long time.
There is a long shelf-life, but a short prep-time required for pizza pies in the sky; Anjan explained that it “takes seven minutes to print a pizza.”
Culinary inventions aside, 37 year old Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti spoke about the hardware printer’s potential at this year’s ‘greatest show and tell on earth,’ – Maker Faire. Having spent hundreds of hours training to deal with emergencies, she said that “this will be groundbreaking, next year there will be a research programme to validate additive manufacturing in space. It means that in future exploration we’ll be able to manufacture spare parts [in orbit].” She also acknowledged another, possibly more pressing, use for the 3D printing function aboard the space station; “”The worst emergency of all is when the space toilet breaks.” We can only imagine.