Spaceships Building Spaceships?

3D printing technology has been around for only a few years, but the possibilities are fantastic!  NASA has been experimenting with 3D printers to make spare parts in the ISS, and now they've funded a project to build spacecraft in space out of materials from space.

"The "SpiderFab" project received $100,000 from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program to hammer out a design and figure out whether spacecraft self-construction makes business sense. Practical planning and additional funding could lead to the launch of a 3D-printing test mission within several years," according to Space News.

Photo from Space News.  Credit Unlimited Tethers.
It could prove to be a significant cost cutter and a major step toward pushing us further into the solar system and eventually out of it.  The biggest expense and manufacturing problem with spacecraft is escaping Earth's orbit.  See The "Tyranny of the Rocket Equation" by astronaut Don Pettit in the Fall 2012 issue of Ad Astra for more details.  Not only do we end up using most of the rocket's mass for fuel to get it into space, we also have to manufacture our craft to be able to withstand Earth's gravity and the stress of leaving our atmosphere, which means sturdier and heavier than it made need for its space mission.  Build it in space, and you can build lighter--plus you need only send the building bot up, which experts say may not need to be larger than a cubesat, smaller than one of the standard $15 mailing box you get at the post office.

In theory, if you have intricate enough plans and a good enough printer with access to the correct materials, you will be able to make the entire ship from scratch.  We're a long way from that, but imagine building the structure of the ship, then astronauts finishing the job with components sent up from Earth.  It's an exciting first start.

Speaking of 3D technologies, there is a company, RocketCrafters, that is working on using 3D printers to print solid rocket fuel.  It allows for better control of the shape of the fuel, which can mean better control of the spacecraft.  More on that another time.

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