Remember that scene in Apollo 13 when the astronauts are scrambling to fix a problem onboard the space shuttle and can only use materials they’ve found in storage? Ed Harris, who portrayed NASA’s flight director on Earth, summed up their predicament perfectly: “Well, I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rapidly.”
A 3D printer could have solved Apollo 13’s pivotal problem in just a few hours. Just saying. Luckily for the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), we’ve proven that it is possible to 3D print objects in space. And now, the ISS is going to get an early Christmas present in the form of a new and improved 3D printer!
Space manufacturers Made in Space and home-improvement retailer Lowe’s are putting their talents together to send the first commercial 3D printer into space. The printer, set to be delivered at some point between now and next March, will become a permanent manufacturing fixture on the ISS.
But hold on, you’re asking yourself—didn’t Made in Space already senda 3D printer into space back in December of last year? Yes, they did, but that was more of a proof of concept machine than a permanent fixture to the space station. This new printer will come with the luxury of receiving schematics and blueprints directly from NASA ground control. No more “Houston, we have a problem,” that’s for sure!
Here’s how it works: Let’s say a ratchet goes missing and needs to be replaced. The astronaut sends a request signal down to earth for a new part. A design team in California sketches a 3D model, prints it, and gets NASA approval. The agency’s team on Earth will then sign off, and the ratchet will be printed in space. That process would take about two hours, though for smaller, simpler parts, it could take even less time.
“Rather than launch things on rockets, you send a digital file and print things out,” Jason Dunn, chief technology officer and co-founder of Made in Space, tells Fortune. Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, added, “Problems that happen in space also happen on Earth—if you solve it in space, you can definitely solve it on Earth.”
Despite the brilliant, nail-biting experience that was the Apollo 13 mission (and movie), close calls like that shouldn’t be so commonplace in the future of space travel. So, this new highly sophisticated tool by Made in Space is about to become an astronaut’s new best friend. We can’t wait to see what they’ll build next out there in the final frontier!
Photo credit: Lowe’s via Fortune