The boom that 3D printing has experienced over the past couple years has been nothing short of astonishing. The industry started off as predominately as a backyard engineering operation, designing machines that’s sole purpose was to be able to print another one of itself, but it quickly escalated into the market we know today. Indeed it seems even the most wildest predictions about how it would revolutionize certain industries have come true with leading engineering companies adopting 3D printers for both prototyping and full blown production developments. With that in mind it was only a matter of time before one of them was bound for the International Space Station and yesterday SpaceX launched the first 3D printer to be based in space.
The printer, made by Made in Space, isn’t simply a stock standard model that’s been gussied up to work on the ISS. It’s been specifically designed to work in the microgravity environment in low earth orbit, undergoing thousands of simulated zero-g tests (presumably on one of NASA’s vomit comets). Whilst the specifications might not be exactly astounding when compared to some of the printers available down here on earth, it only has a print volume of 5cm x 10cm x 5cm with ABS plastic, it has the potential to be quite revolutionary for NASA, not to mention 3D printing at large.
One of the worst things about space travel is having to bring everything you need with you as there’s really no manufacturing capability to speak of in space. A 3D printer however provides the opportunity to ship up bulk supplies, in this case large reels of ABS plastic, which have a much greater density than the parts created with them will have. This drastically reduces the cost and complexity of shipping things up into space and provides a greater opportunity to create things in-orbit that might not be feasible to ship up otherwise. Of course whether or not 3D printing will be viable in space is another question, one which this device will attempt to answer.
There’s a lot of use for 3D printed plastic parts on the ISS, notably pretty much any small clip or connector on the interior of the craft, however I feel that the real usefulness of 3D printer will come when they can print with metal. Right now there’s no good solutions for doing that via the extruder (although there are a few out there using solder, which doesn’t have the greatest construction properties) as most use the powder bed sintering process. As you can probably guess having a bunch of powder in a microgravity environment isn’t going to work out too well so I’ll be interested to see how future space based 3D printers deal with metal and other materials.
It’s really quite exciting to see developments like this as there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for 3D printing to revolutionize several aspects of space travel. Indeed for long duration missions, one where component failure is a real risk, these kinds of in-orbit manufacturing capabilities are a necessity. Whilst we won’t be mass producing spacecraft parts in orbit any time soon these are the first few baby steps needed to developing that capability.
And wouldn’t you know it Planetary Resources already has partnerships in that direction. I should have guessed!
50 years is an almost incomprehensible amount of time for a young person like myself. That’s nearly double my entire time on this planet and even in my short 26 years I’ve seen wild changes to this world, so I can only imagine the changes anyone someone who has lived 50 years or more has seen. One of the most incredible changes that the last 5 decades has brought us has been the invention of space flight which has dramatically influenced humanity as we know it today, even if its presence is mostly invisible. Two days ago saw the anniversary of our very first tenuous steps into the final frontier with the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first ever human to enter space and orbit our beautiful blue marble.
Winding the clock back 50 years puts us right in the middle of the cold war, a political battle fought over decades on a global scale. The first artificial satellite was created just 4 years prior and the space race between the then USSR and the USA had reached a fever pitch. Both sides were working fervently to stake their claim on being the first to accomplish anything in space and at this point the Russians were winning after their success with Sputnik. They weren’t resting on the laurels however and they were aggressively pursuing the goal of getting the first man into space. The mission was to be called Vostok 1.
The craft Gagarin was to ride into space wasn’t a large one by any stretch of the imagination, being a mere 2.3 meters in diameter and looking a lot more like a submersible craft than one destined for the vacuum of space. In true Russian fashion it was also incredibly robust and when compared to its American counterparts it was incredibly simple. The craft also lacked any control surfaces and didn’t have any backup thrusters, which is why the craft was mostly spherical, since unlike the American craft it couldn’t orientate a heat shield to protect it on re-entry. This also meant that in the event that retrorockets didn’t fire Gagarin would have been stuck in orbit for up to 10 days, and as such the craft was equipped with enough supplies to ensure that he’d survive.
The mission began at 5:30AM, 12th of April 1961. Both Gagarin and his backup pilot, Gherman Titov, were awoken at this time with the launch scheduled to start 2 hours later. Things went pretty smoothly although doctors reported that Gagarin wasn’t himself at this time, being somewhat pale and unusually reserved. Still in comparison to Titov, who had to take medication to calm himself down, Gagarin was as calm as ever with a resting heart rate of that of a long distance runner. About an hour after being awoken he was secured in the Vostok capsule (which had to be resealed once due to it failing the first time) and was left in there for another 40 minutes before blasting off into space.
In total Gagarin spent just over an hour orbiting the earth, completing one full orbit and touching down in a field outside of Engels in the Saratov region. His descent from the heavens startled a farmer and his daughter who witnessed this alien like creature in an orange suit with a white helmet descending from the heavens. He later recalled the situation:
When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!
Gagarin and his capsule were both successfully recovered. He returned back to Moscow a hero and a figure that will be remembered as one of the great pioneers of the final frontier. Although he never orbited the earth again he was heavily involved in the USSR’s space program afterwards, helping design new craft and was a backup pilot for the very first Soyuz mission a craft that is still in use today. Tragically his life was cut short in 1968 in a routine test flight over a Russian air base, but the legacy he laid down will last on for as long as humanity exists.
I’ve often said that I don’t give the Russians enough attention on this blog and they should be recognized for their amazing accomplishments in space. 50 years on the influence of early pioneers like Gagarin and his team are clearly visible in all facets of the Russian space program. It’s a testament to their strong ideals of simplicity and robustness that a craft designed decades ago can still be in service today and still meet the needs of both NASA and the ROSCOSMOS. Whilst I may be a bit late to the party in remembering the great feats of the Russian space program I hope you’ll join me today in recognizing their accomplishments, and wishing them all the best for the next 50 years.
I must admit I don’t give the Russians enough credit for the work they do in space. If a Shuttle launches you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll write a post up about it and guaranteed I’ll be letting everyone else know about it if they don’t read my blog. Still at least 5 times a year Russia launches up a Soyuz craft carrying 3 *nauts and in between those they launch another 4 or so Progress craft to resupply the International Space Station. So whilst their craft might not be as iconic and grandiose as the Shuttle they are in essence the innovators of cheap, reliable access to space and have been for many decades.
Really though Russia’s prowess in terms of pioneering space technologies goes much further than that. Today 39 years ago they launched an extremely ambitious project called Salyut-1, the first ever space station. For the most part you would call it an observatory as the majority of the work during the Salyut’s maiden flight was Earth facing observation plus a few deep space spectrographs. Like with all firsts in space there were many problems with the first flight being unable to dock due to their docking couple failing and the second crew, who were tragically lost upon re-entry but have since ensured that none will be lost in that way again, were forced out of the station due to numerous problems including an electrical fire (probably the worst thing that can happen in high pressure oxygen rich environments).
The Salyuts were fairly spacious for their time having just under 100m³ of area for the visiting cosmonauts (compare that to the ISS’s living volume of 373m³). Couple that with 20 portholes that littered the space craft and life up there wouldn’t have been too bad. Especially for those cosmonauts who were used to the cramped confines of the Soyuz which, up until recently, didn’t even have a window for the orbital module (not that it needed it anyway). Taking a tour of the inside reveals that most areas had enough room to be quite comfortable, they even had a treadmill.
True to their core philosophies of truly repeatable mission profiles Salyut 1 wasn’t the last of its kind. The Salyut mission profiles flew another 8 missions and were responsible for many of the components that made up the Mir Space Station that followed. The last of the Salyut series even managed to stay up in orbit for over 4 years and was visited repeatedly by a total of 10 crews. If you compare that to the American offering of the same time who managed to keep a station in orbit for 6 years but only ever managed to visit it 3 times you can see why that even today the core of our biggest space station ever is in fact a Russian module called Zvezda. It’s no wonder the Chinese turned to Russia for their space program.
The Salyut craft also had a slightly darker side with 3 of the missions (2, 3 and 5) designated as Almaz military Orbital Piloted Stations. These are the only (known) craft to ever fly weapons in space and whilst they didn’t carry anything really destructive, a Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23, it was still successfully fired at a test satellite on orbit. Other than that however they were just your typical military operation with the exception that they were piloted by humans on orbit rather than on the ground.
Despite this however the Salyut missions were another step forward in humanity’s endeavours in space and we owe a great deal to Russia for them. Without their courage and sacrifice there’s no telling how much longer it would have taken us to big something as impressive as the ISS or the technology to keep humans alive in orbit for a period that was measured in months instead of weeks. I believe I speak for many of us space nuts in saying that on today of all days we salute you Russia.