The Implications of 3D Printing for Space Settlements

By Mark Hopkins (Spring 2015)

The big news is the success of the first 3D printer on the Space Station. I am writing this about two days after the completion of the construction of the first tool in space—a wrench. What are the implications for NSS’ long-term goal of Space Settlement?

3D printing is a means by which objects are “printed” in three dimensions by adding one layer of material on top of another until the object in question is completed. The Age of In-Space Manufacturing by Michael Snyder in the Winter 2014 issue of Ad Astra explains in detail 3D printing in the context of what is happening on the ISS. Snyder is the lead engineer at Made In Space, the company that is developing 3D printing for use in space. He is also a member of the NSS board of directors.

Via 3D printing, we can manufacture not only items in space, such as tools, but potentially large structures. Such structures have the advantage of not being built from parts that have to be strong enough to survive the high forces of being launched from Earth. The structures are also not constrained by a need to fit into the payload space of a rocket. Instead, we can build extremely large lightweight structures. This suggests that space solar power satellites can be built at substantially lower cost than has been envisioned. Currently on Earth, the manufacture of the many diverse products used by society requires an enormous infrastructure—a factory to build X, another factory to build Y, etc. One of the major obstacles to large-scale space industrialization has been the need (loosely speaking) to duplicate this infrastructure in space. 3D printing eliminates this need. For example, to build almost any aluminum object, we only need a computerized design sent by radio from Earth, the printer, and some aluminum. If the object is made of aluminum with some copper wiring, simply add a source of copper, etc. A 3D printer run by a robot can potentially build an identical 3D printer and an identical robot. Not only does this mean that very little infrastructure is needed in Earth orbit, but very little infrastructure is needed at any particular space location, including: at a lunar base, a lunar mining facility, a lunar settlement, an asteroidal mining facility, or a Martian settlement. Consequently, with 3D printing, the cost of building and maintaining a lunar base, a lunar mining facility, a lunar settlement, an asteroidal mining facility, and/or a Martian settlement is greatly reduced. This increases the chance that they will be built sooner rather than later.

3D printing galvanizes the demand for and hence the value of space resources. We no longer need an enormous in-space infrastructure to make large-scale use of materials, such as aluminum mined on the Moon or elsewhere in space. The increase in value of lunar and asteroidal materials means they will be mined sooner.

In time, 3D printers using space resources may be able to build space settlements in free space at remarkably low prices. 3D printing promises to greatly accelerate humanity’s drive into space and substantially hasten the date at which NSS obtains its goal of Space Settlement.

This article was written by Mark Hopkins, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society. The article originally appeared in Ad Astra, Spring 2015.