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NASA 3D printer: The next revolution in space?

NASA 3D printer could be used to make tools and spare parts for the International Space Station by next year, instead of shipping them up from Earth. NASA is working with Made in Space to produce a 3D printer.

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Tools and parts made by a 3D printer are displayed at Made in Space in Mountain View, Calif. One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is that you need to bring everything with you: tools, equipment, spare parts, satellites.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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A California-based company that will launch a 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014 is aiming to change the way space agencies think about how they transport goods to the orbiting outpost. But, using a machine to spit out spare parts for the space station is only the beginning.

Built by the firm Made in Space, Inc., the first 3D printer in space will launch to the space station aboard commercial spaceflight provider SpaceX's Dragon capsule. The mission will largely be a proof-of-concept flight, in which astronauts will use the device to demonstrate its functionality in the microgravity environment, Mike Chen, Made in Space co-founder and chief strategy officer, told an audience at World Maker Faire in Queens here on Sept. 21.

While astronauts will initially use the 3D printer to create spare parts and tools for the space station. Made in Space is hoping "makers" on Earth will get a chance to flex their creativity by coming up with designs for science experiments, innovative projects and artwork.

"Once our printer is there, we're going to be opening it up to the world to print things in space," Chen said, while openly soliciting ideas and encouraging people to contact the company with thoughts.

If all goes well, a permanent version of the 3D printer will be launched to the International Space Station in 2015.

"The paradigm shift that we want everyone to understand is: instead of launching things to space, just print it there," Chen said. "Why would you go through all the energy to build it here and launch it, when you can just build it there?"

Made in Space was founded in 2010 with the mission of broadening access to space. "[I]t's really expensive and difficult to launch things into space, and that puts a real dampening effect on innovation," Chen said.

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