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ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst discusses benefits of 3D printing on the ISS

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Improvising new stuff from the stuff you have is part of an astronaut’s job description – think Apollo 13’s crew refitting CO2 filters to save their own lives, or stranded Mark Watney in The Martian, feeding himself on the Red Planet. Now plans are underway to manufacture items in orbit, and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst argues that 3D printing on the ISS could make a big difference to living and working in space.

Gerst – who has spent just under a year in orbit, becoming the second European to command the International Space Station (ISS) – spoke at ESA’s Workshop on Advanced Manufacturing, which included a special session on out-of-Earth manufacturing.

Printers in space

While plastic-producing 3D printers have already reached space, the virtual event highlighted how ESA will fly the first metal 3D printer in 2022. Researchers are also planning large-scale manufacturing such as spacecraft printing their own antennas or solar arrays after launch. Offering a unique user’s perspective from his 363 days in orbit, Alexander described out-of-Earth manufacturing as a game-changer for space exploration.

benefits of 3D printing on the ISS

“It’s mind-boggling to think of what the ISS actually is,” Gerst said. “We built it in space, moving at 28 000 km/h, out of modules manufactured in different continents and put together in orbit for the first time. Those of you who have built a house, could you imagine doing it without being able to go to Home Depot in case you forgot some screws or something?”

Whereas advanced manufacturing is dedicated to production capabilities on Earth, the workshop featured a dedicated day for manufacturing in space. This domain is recognized as a future key enabling technology, which can have significant positive impacts on the cost, logistics, duration and performance of robotic and human space missions. This can affect potentially all aspects of space activities, from alleviating design constraints imposed by the launch phase, leading to larger components, enhanced mission scenarios and reduced material and energy consumption, to allowing new maintenance strategies and expansion of exploration capabilities during human exploration missions, for longer, more sustainable missions.

benefits of 3D printing on the ISS

Why it matters

Typically the actual design work for out-of-Earth manufacturing would be done on the ground – but it is important that those on the ground have an accurate picture of conditions in space. “Most ground teams have the impression the in-orbit configuration is known very precisely, but often this isn’t the case: records might be outdated, and configurations change over time,” Gerst said.

Alexander gave the example of his Russian colleagues trying to apply plastic coverings to renew the internal wall surfaces of the service module, but finding that some of the shapes that had been produced did not match the reality after two decades in orbit, and had to be modified to fit.

“The real key enabler is actually a closed feedback loop, with a measuring and scanning system to get precise data on geometries and configurations before designing the tool for printing, and also as a quality control method afterward.”

Only on highly autonomous missions, such as trips to Mars, would the crew undertake the entire production cycle themselves, without ground assistance – or else during emergencies.

ESA’s vision

Alexander concluded: “To leave Earth the most important governing law is the rocket equation but to live in space the most important is Murphy’s Law – you have to have the mindset that whatever can go wrong might eventually go wrong. We’d better be prepared for that, and in-space manufacturing will help us with that. It’s an enabling game-changer to let us go further into space and reduce the risk. So I welcome the out-of-Earth manufacturing effort from ESA to help Europe secure a leadership position in this promising domain.”

benefits of 3D printing on the ISS

This workshop took place as part of ESA’s Advanced Manufacturing initiative, to show the state of the art in manufacturing technologies and reach out to the community as an opportunity to discuss a future vision and strategy. “Our more than 40 technology development activities kicked-off so far open up new possibilities in terms of design freedom, streamlined production stages and reduced cost or lead time, along with enhanced product performance,” noted Thomas Rohr, heading ESA’s Materials and Processes Section “extending the manufacturing process to space out of Earth is a crucial element of our overall efforts with great potential for future mission scenarios and commercial business cases.”

To learn more about the full strategy for ESA’s advanced manufacturing in and for space, read the exclusive interview with Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, in 3dpbm’s AM Fucus Aerospace eBook.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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