An intriguing article in Forbes delves into one of those questions that has often bothered tech-minded guys like me – namely, why have extensive space exploration and/or at least a partial colonization of the moon (both of which were once viewedÂ as mainstreamÂ reasonable assumptions aboutÂ the 21st century) lagged so far behind otherÂ astoundingÂ technological advances (e.g., computer and Internet technology)?
With the US Space Shuttle fleet currently grounded, only a small handful of private companiesÂ attempting to develop an alternative to outdated Russian space modules, a rapidly aging International Space Station andÂ most of NASA’s budget focused solely on unmanned missions, itÂ appears the futurists of the 1950s and 60s somehowÂ got everything terribly wrong.Â Or did they?
In some exciting news, it finally seems that real advances may be arriving more quickly than most of us would have imagined. According toÂ an increasing number of space travel experts (in both the public and private sectors), the largest barrier hindering human space flight and explorationÂ has been the necessity of Earth-bound construction. Considering, as the article explains, that it costs roughlyÂ $10,000 per pound to launchÂ an object out of our atmosphere, its not so surprising we’ve had to limit our expenditures – particularly sinceÂ there has often been no immediate profit to balanceÂ out such an enormous outlay of capital (the computer industry, of course,Â presents virtually the oppositeÂ dynamic – at least from an economic perspective…)
Now, however, the rapidly advancing science of 3D printing may soon offer the possibility of designing and building virtually anything astronauts require once they’re already in space. And, because of zero-G conditions, they’ll even be able to manufacture certain types of highly useful tools that literally couldn’t exist on Earth.
Creating a 3D printer capable of functioning effectively in space, of course, has proven to be a significant engineering feat in its own right. Nevertheless, a public-privateÂ partnership called “Made in Space” appears already to have succeeded with various prototypes – evenÂ several that have already been extensively tested in zero gravity. With launches of more advanced versions planned for both 2014 and 2015, the relative time-frame isÂ suddenly sounding a lot more like developing the next generation of iPads than constructing giant Atlas rockets.
Practically, what all this means is that astronauts would be able to produce the parts necessary for much larger spacecraft, design robots capable of performing in-space assembly, repair virtually anything that malfunctions, create habitable structures on other worlds and – as has already been demonstrated on Earth – even “print biologically,” thus greatly enhancing the medical safety and longevity of future space travelers.
Yes – It does sound almost entirely like science fiction. But just take another look at the amazing video above, and while it may still look like magic, rest assured that it is 100% science.
Not only that, it’s science that’s moving very very fast . . . Exciting times, indeed.