The International Space Station is full of spare parts, components that can be pulled in quickly to replace any faulty or broken ones.

NASA's Tracie Prater wants astronauts to not have to bring up so much clutter, and to print out the tools that they need.

Tracie Prater, NASA Marshall
Tracie Prater, NASA

In this episode of our podcast series Here's an Idea, you'll learn about everything NASA is trying build "on demand," from plastic ratchets and sophisticated sensors to entire lunar habitats and personal back scratchers.

Prater, a materials engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, tells us about NASA's efforts to bring 3D printing to space. 

Also: Learn how this process of additive manufacturing will play an especially intriguing role in long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, where going back for spare parts is not an option.

In our conversation, Prater reveals the kinds of unexpected materials that can be fed into a 3D printer, from leftover plastic packaging to the lunar soil.

Listen to the episode.

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Episode Highlights

  • (3:49) What kinds of parts are best suited for 3D printing?
  • (5:30) What has been the reaction from astronauts who are using these 3D printed parts?
  • (8:15) What role will 3D printing play in long-duration Moon missions?
  • (10:14) How do know that a 3D-printed part is a “good,” certified part?
  • (15:35) What is the coolest thing you've seen 3D-printed?
  • (22:39) How did you first get involved with 3D printing?
  • (28:38) What is most exciting to you about 3D printing and the role it might play in space exploration?

More Resources: NASA and 3D Printing 

  • Astronaut Butch Wilmore and His 3D Printer

Given the dry air on the ISS, one of the first objects that astronaut Butch Wilmore wanted to print was a back scratcher. Though he never received the plastic itch-reliever until he got back down to Earth, NASA teams were able to uplink design files that allowed the ISS crew to 3D-print ratchets, structural clips, and sample containers.

A close-up of the 3D-printed ratchet wrench, designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space Inc., a northern California company that NASA contracted to design, build and operate the printer
A close-up of the ratchet wrench, designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space Inc., a northern California company that NASA contracted to design, build and operate the printer. 
NASA's Butch Wilmore and a 3D-printed sample container
Wilmore also printed out a sample container (shown here) that took two hours to make. (Image Credit: NASA)
  • A Home on Mars, 3D-Printed

What's the coolest thing Tracie has seen 3D-printed? Entire habitats, it turns out. As part of NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, teams competed to create sustainable shelters for deep space exploration, including the agency’s journey to Mars.

In the video below, see the winner of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge.

Members of the Pennsylvania State University 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge team, with their completed 3D-printed dome structure at the Caterpillar Inc. Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois. The team won second place and 0,000 in NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 2: Level 3 competition.
Members of the Pennsylvania State University 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge team, with their completed 3D-printed dome structure at the Caterpillar Inc. Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois. The team won second place and $150,000 in NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 2: Level 3 competition. Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

 

Learn who won the final phase of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge.

  • Rockets!

NASA's Artemis program will astronauts to the Moon and prepare crew for human exploration of Mars. Experts from NASA, industry, and academia are looking to 3D-printing to build the rocket parts that could power the Artemis trips.

Complex designs – such as engine nozzles with integrated channels walls – can be fabricated using a metal additive-manufacturing technique called blown powder directed energy deposition. 

Blown powder directed energy deposition can produce large structures – such as these engine nozzles – cheaper and quicker than traditional fabrication techniques.
Blown powder directed energy deposition can produce large structures – such as these engine nozzles – cheaper and quicker than traditional fabrication techniques. (Image Credit: NASA)

These initiatives mentioned above are only a few of the examples of NASA's additive manufacturing efforts.

Learn more about NASA's 3D-printing efforts by reading our 2020 feature: 3D Printing and Space Exploration: How NASA Will Use Additive Manufacturing.

What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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