Bay Area company sends 3-D printer into space

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Bay Area company sends 3-D printer into space
A Mountain View company has sent the first zero gravity 3-D printer into space to be tested aboard the International Space Station.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KGO) -- Early Tuesday morning, a capsule docked with the International Space Station carrying, among other things, a 3-D printer. It's anything but ordinary.

The toughest thing about space is getting there. Though it takes only minutes to leave the earth's atmosphere, it takes months to prepare every piece of cargo for the harrowing journey.

But one piece of cargo on the latest flight could change everything.

"For millions of years, humans have been making things and making tools, but all of that making has happened on the surface of the earth," said Made in Space co-founder Mike Chen.

Until now.

Made in Space has created a 3-D printer like you've never seen before -- air-tight, stainless steel, and very precise.

The founders of Made in Space tried taking existing 3-D printers on zero gravity flights.

"None of the printers are capable of controlling the material appropriately when there wasn't a force like gravity to hold everything in place," Chen said.

So they built one that doesn't need gravity to make plastic nuts and bolts and wrenches. Essentially, to make the tools and parts to fix anything that breaks.

"Currently, without the 3-D printer, what happens is the astronauts basically grab what they have around them and try to jerry-rig a solution," Chen said.

Their first printer is headed to space for what amounts to a science experiment. Once it succeeds, Made in Space has big plans for the next printer.

"To have a student design a satellite on their laptop, send it to us, and we'll print it and possibly deploy it possibly even the same day," Chen said.

Entire satellites, made in space. The next printer will use multiple materials -- some hard, some flexible.

And soon, "If you're gonna have a house on the moon one day, it's very unlikely that we're gonna build your house here, strap it to the top of a rocket and then launch it to the moon," Chen said.

Indeed, they're already experimenting with 3-D printed building supplies made out of lunar dust.