Vacation on Mars: 3D Printing Aids Astronauts in Space Exploration

The race to get humans on Mars is well underway. NASA, private companies, and some foreign governments are trying to come up with technology that with feed and house people for the long trip. Eight months to a year later, astronauts will touch down on the Martian surface, build colonies using the planet’s resources, and harness the Sun to power their devices. All in all, the mission must be highly efficient and sustainable, so that there’s enough room to carry necessary supplies. Thankfully, 3D printing is the solution that many engineers have been looking for. With a versatile enough machine, astronauts would be able to fabricate highly nutritious food, build homes from Martian materials, and print surgical tools to deal with medical emergencies. Below, we’ve outlined how NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture hope to harness 3D printers and achieve their extraterrestrial dream.

Printing Food

To create the kind of device that can transform healthy ingredients into real food, NASA has enlisted the help of mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor. Anjan’s company, Systems & Material Research Corporation, has been hard at work coming up with a food synthesizer with individual cartridges that house base ingredients. So far, the team has proven that chocolate and pizza can be made using this device, and will continue expanding into more complex recipes. A mission to Mars will require a lot of food to keep travelers alive; since storage is at a premium, 3D printing can harness condensed food as it is needed, rather than taking up more space with packaged meals.

Printing Houses

Once our brave astronauts have landed on the Martian surface, they’ll need to build shelters that can be assembled quickly and withstand extreme temperatures. More than 10 years ago, NASA gave Behrokh Khoshnevis — director and professor at USC’s manufacturing engineering graduate program — a $500,000 grant to help solve this dilemma. He came up with an automated system that allows astronauts to create cement structures in less than 24 hours, harnessing the Sun for power and Mars for materials. Right now, this “contour crafting” approach is being used in developing areas or natural disaster zones where people need housing fast, but it still isn’t ready for inter-planetary travel. Hopefully by 2030, it will be.

Printing Tools

With homes and enough food to survive, our travelers will have the basic necessities, but what happens when someone needs medical help? Of course, a Mars mission wouldn’t have the cargo space to transport an entire operating room of equipment, so 3D printing options need to be considered. Researchers at MarsWithoutBorders have been conducting experiments with printing surgical tools from metal filament. They also came up with a “claw” apparatus, which would allow a person wearing a spacesuit to perform medical procedures in space. All in all, it’s an exciting time for designers, space explorers, and dreamers.