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By NASA, via Wikimedia Commons
Apollo 13 Lunar Module
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Apollo 13 Image Library, via Wikimedia Commons
Apollo 13 Service Module
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By NASA, via Wikimedia Commons
Apollo 13 crew
The potential for 3D printing applications is growing by the day and the use of a 3D printer in space as a means of replacing broken parts and creating those components left on Earth is one that has captured the imaginations of many.
Even NASA has been bitten by the 3D printing bug, it seems, with one spaceman giving a very real example of where 3D printing technology has the potential to save lives.
Speaking in an exclusive interview for Space.com, Reid Wiseman, a former Navy pilot who is bound for the International Space Station for the first time as a member of the Expedition 40/41 crew this May, brought up one of the world's best known space travel stories in his argument in favour of having a 3D printer on your ship.
"Imagine if Apollo 13 had a 3D printer?" he said.
Apollo 13 launched on April 11th 1970 bound for the moon, but the trip was aborted and the world media gripped when a oxygen tank exploded putting the crew of three's lives at serious risk.
In order to survive the return journey to Earth, the crew was moved from the Service Module into the Lunar Module, which was only equipped to keep two crew members alive for two days. The team in Houston, Texas, had to improvise using objects on board to create a rig that would adapt the Command Module's carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the round Lunar Module - a problem 3D printing could have helped resolve more easily. Apollo 13 had a happy ending, even though the team never reached the moon, but Wiseman's example could convince more of the potential 3D printing technology has when it comes to problem solving.
"You don't even need to know what part is going to break - you can just print out that part," he said. "Let's say your screwdriver strips out halfway to Mars and you need a screwdriver. Print out a screwdriver ... Instead of packing along 20,000 spare parts, you pack along a few kilograms of 'ink'."
He added: "Really, I think for the future, that's pretty fascinating. I really like that and it'll be fun to play with that on orbit."
According to Space.com, a 3D printer by Made in Space is set to launch to the Space Station on SpaceX's fifth robotic resupply mission. The 3D Print - which is an abbreviation of 3D Printing in Zero G Experiment - is a polymer stereolithography machine and is capable of printing out some 30 per cent of the spare parts currently on the Space Station, according to Chief Technologist at Made in Space Jason Dunn.
Wiseman voiced his concerns over members of the crew wanting to tinker with the 3D printer and suggested that having a free-for-all attitude to its use could lead to running out of material too quickly.
"We'd run that thing out of ink in five minutes," he joked. But he acknowledged how impressed he is with the technology. "Just to know that this technology works in microgravity, I think it's going to change our future flying."
Wiseman's enthusiasm was echoed by 3D Print Project Manager at NASA Marshall's Technology Development and Transfer Office Niki Werkheiser. He said in a statement last year: "[3D printing] will allow us to live and work in space with the same efficiency and productivity that we do on Earth, with the ultimate objective being to eliminate reliance on materials and parts launched form the ground."
To read the full article and watch Reid Wiseman's interview with members of his team, click to the Space.com website.