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Star Trek Replicator Challenge Takes off at NASA

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The Start Trek Replicator, i.e. that machine that could be used to make absolutely anything in the Universe and yet it was used mostly to make “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” A lot like early low cost 3D printing… it could be used to make anything and yet it was used mostly to make the “infamous” little Yoda statues

tea-earl-grayIf there is a way to change that is by getting those that have an open mind into the game. The American Society for Mechanical Engineers Foundation, working with NASA and Star Trek, is thus asking the next generation of astronauts and Starfleet cadets to engineer the future of food production in space, through the third ‘Future Engineers’ challenge aimed to educate students K-12 about 3-D printing and engineering design.

The Star Trek Replicator Challenge, which launched at a Kids’ Week event at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, runs through May 1. Nasa reported that the challenge asked students to help astronauts “live long and prosper” on future deep space explorations missions by designing 3D printed designs that will help crews eat nutritious meals in the year 2050. Examples of possible designs include hardware needed to grow and harvest plants, and hardware needed to prepare, eat, and dispose of food.

Sustainability will be a critical aspect of long duration space missions and will require off-planet manufacturing technologies to create all of the items our future astronauts need,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s in-space manufacturing manager.

The Made in Space 3D printer is already in space
The Made in Space 3D printer is already in space

The replicator used throughout the Star Trek franchise has long been a concept of science fiction, but 3D printing in space has recently given us glimpses of what may be. NASA sent the first, Made in Space, 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014 and astronauts have successfully printed 21 plastic tools, containers and test samples.

All jokes aside, for NASA, developing food production technologies for space means planning well beyond a single cup of hot tea. For example, it might include manufacturing items such as the teacups themselves in addition to creating pots for growing tea and containers to store it in. NASA is incorporating innovative ideas for sustainable exploration into the agency’s exploration mission roadmap in order to become truly earth-independent on our journey to Mars.

Student winners will receive a range of prizes, including a trip to New York for a tour of the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Museum with an astronaut, a 3D printer for the winners’ schools or a Star Trek prize pack. Thinking of something never done before may be just a small step for a child but a giant one for 3D printing.

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