In December 2014, NASA emailed a spanner to the International Space Station, where astronaut Barry Wilmore simply printed it off. His 3D printer was supplied by Made In Space, a Californian company working with NASA to investigate remanufacturing and recycling in orbit – the ultimate test of a circular economy.
Made In Space is working on a plastic recycling system called R3DO, which would produce a waste-free supply of the feedstock for 3D printers.
“An automated in-space recycling system for 3D printer feedstock will provide game-changing resupply benefits including but not limited to launch mass reduction, mission reliability increases, and decreased reliance on resupply from Earth”, said the company in a proposal for a Small Business Innovation Research grant from NASA to develop its system, which was secure.
The aim, says NASA, is to enable astronauts to be more self-reliant on long-duration space missions. Made In Space is also exploring whether the technology could be applied to shipping, beginning with the US Navy.
The capacity to create and recycle in a context as isolated as outer space signals a new frontier for distributed manufacturing. Taking the air miles out of a value chain is one thing; taking space miles out is something else.
Photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr