3D printing will play a vital role when we get to Mars. Here are five reasons why.

  • The vision of actually stepping foot on another planet is closer than it has ever been, thanks to technologies that truly would have seemed like something out of science fiction to even early Apollo astronauts. But as that vision inches closer to someday being a reality, it raises legitimate questions not just about how to get to Mars, but how to live once we’re there.

    According to NASA’s own timeline, a manned mission to Mars is years away and a lot of work has to be done before it could actually happen. But whenever we get to Mars, 3D printing will play a vital role. Here are five reasons why.

  • 1. ) 3D-Printed Habitats

    It’s a pretty safe bet that when the first astronauts get to Mars, Marriott or Hilton won’t have beat them there. They’ll need a place to stay which they’ll have to build themselves. In May NASA awarded $500,000 to AI SpaceFactory for their design of a structure that could be 3D-printed from natural materials found on Mars – specifically basalt, a dark volcanic rock in abundance on the red planet’s surface. Basalt would be extracted and mixed with renewable bioplastic resources processed from plants in a hydroponic garden to create common 3D printing filaments like PLA. The result would be a structure providing protection from the extreme temperature swings and intense radiation on Mars.

    (Image source: AI SpaceFactory)

  • 3D printing, additive manufacturing, food, food manufacturing, health

    2.) 3D-Printed Food

    After moving in to your 3D-printed home and workspace you’re going to be looking for something to eat. Some of your nutritional needs can be met from the aforementioned hydroponic garden that will be growing in one of the modules in your Martian home. But that can’t meet all your needs. And of course the Martian landscape won’t be providing any help. But packing, storing, and maintaining the freshness of food for a trip that is estimated to take 32 months just to get there – and then staying for perhaps years – is simply impractical. One potential solution is to 3D print at least some of the nutritional requirements. Today, 3D-printed foods are still in the novelty stage. It’s common at trade shows to see 3D-printed chocolates or other candies. But the Holy Grail of 3D-printed food has been to create a meal – chicken, rice, and a vegetable for example – that would satisfy the nutritional needs specific to any individual. This is a long way off, but such a solution in one form another would be required to meet the sustenance needs of an extended stay in space.

    Above: A graphic from  Ewha Womans University in South Korea shows how food can be 3D-printed to provide people with a healthier, better-balanced diet and promote healthier eating

    (Image source: Jin-Kyu Rhee, Ewha Womans University)

  • 3.) 3D-Printed Medicine

    Humans get sick and have accidents. Any extended stay in space has to take into consideration medical needs. Research into 3D-printable bioinks is expanding at an accelerating rate. Today, there are projects experimenting with 3D printing medical applications in low gravity environments trying to replicate everything from bone cartilage to skin tissue. In addition, the idea of using 3D printing for personalized medicine (creatinf prescriptions specific to the individual) has been gaining ground in recent years and would certainly be a necessity in any extended space exploration.

    Above: MIT engineers have 3D-printed stretchy mesh, with customized patterns designed to be flexible yet strong, for use in ankle and knee braces.

    (Image source: Felice Frankel)

  • 4.) 3D-Printed Tools

    Although no one talks about this when discussing the role of additive manufacturing in space exploration, but the fact is there’ll be lots of equipment on some future Mars colony. And equipment, no matter how well built or how well designed, breaks. So if you’re cruising around on the rough Martian landscape in your Mars rover and a strut snaps, how would you replace it? Although it wouldn’t seem likely to be an early deployment, at some point it would make sense that 3D printers capable of producing different materials would eventually make their way to any Moon or Mars colony. Printers that could print in materials compatible with the atmospheric conditions or, ideally, extracted from the planet’s natural resources could solve a lot of maintenance and spare parts issues.

    Above: A team from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, for example, is creating a 3D-printed toolkit to assist with living and working on Mars.

    (Image source: Curtin University)

  • 5.) Creative Problem Solving with 3D Printing

    Having been in the industry for several years now, what has become obvious to me is that 3D printers, regardless of which additive technology or material, are problem solving tools. Years ago I sold 3D printers to a lab at Pfizer Corporation in Groton, Connecticut. At the time I was very puzzled. Why would a pharmaceutical lab want a 3D printer that only prints in PLA? Well, they printed a fish-food dispenser that could properly mix the drug being tested with the right amount of fish food. They printed test tube holders that would hold test tubes in a specific orientation. They printed a tablet for counting pills that was easier to use than the one they had. In other words, they started solving problems that prior to the printer they just had to accept.

    On the Toyota assembly line in Princeton, Indiana I saw a simple 3D-printed tool that reduced a basic task from fours steps to two. That might not sound like much but multiply it by 4,000 cars a week times 50 weeks. Reducing individual tasks even a little reaps huge benefits in productivity and reducing worker fatigue. There’s really very little doubt that a 3D printer on Mars printing tools or parts as they are needed for the hydroponic garden or the rover would be enormously valuable.

    (Image source:  Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash)

Jack Heslin is the Founder and President of 3DTechTalks, as well as the Head of Business Development for Lazarus3D, a medical 3D printing start-up.