The First 3-D Printer In Space Will Shake Up NASA's Planning-Obsessed Culture

This August, the space agency will try something it's never attempted before—producing critical parts after the mission has already launched.

When flight controller Jerry C. Bostick coined the term "Failure is not an option" during Apollo 13, it stuck as the tag line for NASA's mind-set of one-shot perfection—until this August when it ships the first 3-D printer into space. For an agency that plans and rehearses every move of every mission for months or years ahead of time, the idea of leaving some parts unmanufactured until the team is actually in space is, you could say, a philosophical departure from the way we used to think about space travel.

Here's why NASA is changing its culture for the sake of a little machine that prints in plastic.

Launching From Startup to Space

NASA's one-shot perfection comes from the harshest space environment of all: the launch. "We’ve over-engineered all of our space projects today for an eight-minute ride just so they can get into space," says Made In Space cofounder Jason Dunn.

"It's extremely difficult to get things funded when the rockets are ready because they're really dangerous," adds fellow cofounder Aaron Kemmer.

The solution? To produce parts after the launch, of course. Manufacturing in space isn't a new idea but the stars aligned when 3-D printing technology started to become more mainstream around the same time the founders conceived their vision.

Taking a page from their Silicon Valley playbook, the Made In Space founders spent 10 weeks in 2010 going straight to their customers—only they were astronauts. "Maybe it's because we are young, but we were very actual in wanting to make real things in space happen, so we started looking for that first step which was the launch and found that 30% of broken broken shuttle were parts made of plastic," Dunn says.

When it came printing hardware, the modification required more room for failure than that the team expected—still they didn't shy away from the challenge. "When we first started, our plan was to take off-the-shelf 3-D printers and modify them for space but what we found was none of them worked well enough for zero gravity restriction so we developed an entirely new printer from scratch," cofounder Mike Chen says.

With the hardware in place, the founders and NASA alike have been thinking up possibilities that no longer required one-shot perfection, including colonization. "We all feel undoubtedly that if you can colonize in other places besides Earth, it has tremendous benefits for us here [Earth]."

"Look what we did in Apollo, which was on a really amazing budget that we could only dream about," says NASA’s in-space manufacturing project manager Niki Werkheiser. "And for much, much less than that there's no doubt that we could do it [colonization] soon with this technology and the collective support behind it."

The flexibility Made in Space has found in creating the manufacturing tool Werkheiser says, is going to be necessary for future missions. "SpaceX just contacted us for a new commercial crew vehicle that they're developing guidelines and standards, for not only how we carry things in cargo, but also in developing the vehicles themselves."

Defying Ideals Of Time And Space

Up to this point, developing vehicles and everything in them has been constrained to the volume of each payload. But August's launch will be the first time something with an unknown size and weight will enter space, and with the click of a button at that.

"Most people don't realize why space is so expensive—it's not just that it's this far-out risky environment that is the edge of what we know about exploration—it's the time it takes to prepare everything," Jason Dunn says.

Though single payloads take years just to be launch-ready, Made in Space proposes a radically different turnaround time which founders say is the printer’s biggest advantage. "With printing, you don't have to actually test the rocket anymore, you just instantly beam the hardware in space through an email and build it there in minutes to hours rather than years," Kemmer says.

The team has even surprised themselves with use cases where failure is needed such as experimenting in space—a task that, until now, has only been doable on Earth, taking years to get results.

Along with experimentation, the team is taking the hacker mentality to satellites that would be deployed at a fraction of the time, says Dunn. "We can build small little satellites called CubeSats that launch out of the space station, that are about 4 1/2 inches on the side which you'd hack together because it's that easy to just send up the file and print it out."

Having the printer's hardware ready within six months of their contract, Made in Space further defied production time by sending some of the fastest experiments NASA's ever seen. "As a Silicon Valley startup, we're not like NASA in that we can have a 6- to 10-year mission and wait that long to see if our product works—we have to be very focused on the now and see if it works, or doesn't work and then iterate."

Hacking NASA Workflow

Having beaten the standard two-year minimum product turnaround, the speed at which Made in Space iterates has surprised Werkheiser.

"Electronic magnetic interference is a very complex environment in space and has strenuous requirements and for something that new to go through the entire process from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ is pretty unheard of," she says. "I think it's a direct reflection of how our teams worked together."

Though NASA is used to the bigger aerospace corporations requiring more time and money at each checkpoint, the founders have proved things can be done differently even under quality standards as strict as NASA's. "It [the 3-D printer] has all the safety requirements it needs, but it's done a lot quicker because we're following the startup mentality," Chen says.

To help Made in Space's design process move as quick as its founders, NASA built new protocols to streamline the strenuous process of creating a zero-gravity products, Werkheiser says.

"We've learned that it doesn't matter how quickly they [small businesses] can go, if we [NASA] slow it down every step of the way; if the paperwork weighs more than the experiment, then we're in trouble," she says. "It has been fast-paced, no doubt, but we have blazed the path for establishing a viable business case for other small companies to work with NASA."

With new internal practices in place, the industry most inclined to perfection can now take risks elsewhere, which Dunn says is already paying off. "We've convinced them [NASA] we can invest our own money, ask to take more risks and instead of getting one shot, we get many. If we start printing and it doesn't work, we just print it again and again until it works."

A Dawn of New Materials

The risk-taking workflow will also enable more shots at more materials as the teams look beyond Earth for resources. "The technology backbone, while it does plastic today, is going to do a lot more than that really soon," Dunn says.

It will even enable materials such as astroids, which cofounder Mike Snyder says can be more useful than people think. "We can't afford to ship up the material to take to builders but the asteroid field itself is literally a planet full of material that is just waiting for someone to go use it because Mother Nature didn't get a crack at it."

Traditionally, space materials have a single use, but with renewable resources like astroids, Made in Space has convinced NASA of more building possibilities. Because of this, NASA has opened a category of space recyclers which Werkheiser says she hopes will follow the same small business path as the printer.

"It’s a very exciting capability when you consider the implications to creating a sustainable, closed-loop supply chain system, whether it be for exploring space, the ocean, the desert, or really anywhere that requires time and money to get new or replace broken parts."

Changing the materials means changing shuttle design—which will drastically differ from how we know them to be today, Dunn says. "You might build a space craft that's not even recognizable as a rocket today because it's been designed specifically to survive in space and it doesn't have to support it's own weight anymore."

A Movement for Space Makers

Seemingly more unrecognizable are the days of astronaut exclusivity as the doors of space exploration extend beyond the lucky few. "I think this [printer] is the most exciting way that we as NASA have to make space accessible in a tangible way that we haven't quite been able to do before," Werkheiser says.

Since precise calculation is no longer limiting space creations, niche crowds have started inquiring about bringing their own designs to life and testing the extents of such citizen science. "What I think about as the coolest thing that our printer will print hasn't been thought of yet," Snyder says "It kind of shows that it doesn't need to be, because it's so easily uploadable and printable."

The Made in Space team of now two dozen is racking their brains with apps for the printer based on ideas they’ve received from makers and are now asking everyone to join.

"If you're the schoolteacher or the weekend warrior in the garage building cool stuff and have ideas for space, let's talk and figure out how we get that up there and get it printing because it's going to be a group effort to prove that there is a new way to do things."

Mike Chen says he hopes both the maker movement and business model will show other small companies they too, can think through even the most narrow limitations. "It didn't start out as a maker movement thing, it started to solve the problem of access to space but the printer hardware got us there."

Aaron Kemmer says he hopes the startup's relationship with NASA will bring back the spirit of useful technology to their Silicon Valley neighbors—which now, more than ever, champions failure but lacks knowledge of problems worth failing for.

"There's a lot of other people our age that come here to do startups and making the next app or whatever but we want to inspire others to do something that's actually impactful and will effect resources and discoveries," Kemmer says. "It's not Made in Space's printer or NASA's printer—it's everyone's printer."

[Photos courtesy of Made in Space]

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