As you may have read, Italian
turbo-hottie astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti brewed the first espresso in space on the International Space Station the other day. According to several articles, she drank her (undoubtedly delicious) Italian coffee out of a ‘3D-printed espresso cup.’
What the heck is 3D printing? It is increasingly common in news and culture but you may not know exactly what it means. You should, especially because it has huge implications for expanding human activities in outer space.
3D printing is, essentially, a new type of manufacturing. Conventional (non-3D) manufacturing means taking a chunk of raw material and basically hacking/carving/slicing off bits until the final shape is produced. It’s not that different from carving a sculpture from marble.
But 3D printing works the opposite way: a special machine lays down individual bits of raw material (usually plastic or something that can be easily manipulated) and slowly builds up a shape. That’s why 3D printing is more accurately called ‘additive manufacturing’: layer upon layer of raw material are slowly built up until the final product is produced.
Why is this such a big deal for space travel? 3D printing in space has proven to be easier, faster and less expensive than conventional manufacturing. This could be especially useful for a Mars mission with regards to spare parts. It will be impossible to carry back-up equipment to cover every conceivable contingency on Mars. With 3D printing, however, spare parts could be manufactured on demand. Looking even further ahead, giant 3D printers could churn out space station parts and lunar base components using raw materials derived from Moon dirt and asteroids. In short, 3D printing is a key technology that will enable space exploration and a permanent human presence in outer space.
So now you know about 3D printing. As a reward for reading this entire article, here is a pic of Samantha Cristoforetti.