NASA And Star Trek Have Teamed Up To Create The Next Generation of Makers

3D printing our way to the year 2050
Astronaut Butch Wilmore holds a container that was 3D printed on the International Space Station.
Astronaut Butch Wilmore holds a container that was 3D printed on the International Space Station. NASA

The original Star Trek television series premiered in 1966, fifty years ago, but modern society is still inspired by the technology that could boldly bring the crew of the Enterprise where no man had gone before. The communicators used on the show inspired the flip phones of the early 2000s, and the PADD, or Personal Access Data Device, influenced the development of the tablet computer. Just as technology from the original series captured the imaginations of engineers and scientists, so too did the devices from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Star Trek’s conversant computer we might now call Siri,” Liz Kalodner, Executive Vice President and General Manager of CBS Consumer Products, told Popular Science. (Author’s note: CBS owns the rights to the Star Trek television franchises.) “The universal translator influenced Google Translate, and Geordi La Forge’s visor inspired Google Glass. As for today’s virtual reality, it’s really the Holodeck come to pass. Science fiction has become science reality.”

Captain Picard uses the replicator

One technology that has yet to be replicated though is perhaps the most famous of the series—the replicator, a machine that recycles matter to create any object that has been programmed into its database. Replicators seemed, at best, far-fetched when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, and more likely impossible. But with consumer and commercial 3D printers becoming much more commonplace, the concept of a replicator-like device isn’t so impossible anymore.

This past February, Future Engineers, an online platform that hosts challenges for young inventors, issued the Star Trek Replicator challenge in partnership with NASA, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Foundation and Star Trek. The competition, which seeks to inspire the next generation of makers, challenges K-12 students (with the help of college-aged or older mentors) to design a digital 3D model of a non-edible food item to be 3D printed aboard the International Space Station and beyond in the year 2050. Coming up with solutions for the astronauts of the future will require the makers to think of all aspects of eating, from growing and storing crops to disposing of food waste, and how they can be achieved in a sustainable manner. “3D printing is also a way to empower students with the overall idea that if you can dream it, your can build it,” Deanne Bell, co-founder of Future Engineers and a member of the ASME Foundation, told Popular Science. “The earlier we introduce that to a student, the bigger they will dream and build.”

Those makers may not be students who consider themselves to be good at math or science. Niki Werkheiser, a Future Engineers co-founder and NASA Project Manager for In-Space Manufacturing, told Popular Science this competition aims to teach children and teens who are more artistically-focused that engineering is a mindset, not a degree. “We need that creativity, folks that can think outside the box, and that design process is very creative,” she said. “A lot of times people don’t think of that when they think of engineering. Some of those artists are our best designers.”

Any person wishing to enter the Star Trek Replicator challenge should read the rules and has until May 1st, 2016 to submit his or her design on the Future Engineers website. All submissions in both the Junior (ages 5-12) and Teen (ages 13-19) categories will be featured in the Star Trek Replicator challenge gallery. The winners in each category of the competition will receive a trip to New York City to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise with an astronaut, as well as the Starfleet Academy experience at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum, and receive a “Star Trek mystery prize pack.”

3D Printing on Earth

3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also known, was invented by Charles “Chuck” Hull, and patented on March 11, 1986. Much like in the early days of computing, early 3D printers were much larger than the ones we see in homes and schools today.

“The way computers started, they first came to schools and computer labs at universities. We see the same thing with 3D printing,” said Johan-Till Broer, Director of Public Relations at 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot. “Computers went into homes, and from there to laptops and the smartphone. We see a similar trend for 3D printing, and we’re at the stage where 3D printing today is very similar to computers in the ‘80s.”

Werkheiser also compares 3D printers of the modern era to computers of the 1980s, including their lack of user-friendliness. “When computers first came out you had to be a ‘computer person’ to really operate a computer,” she said. “Now, the computer is very user friendly and it’s just a mechanism to do a million things that we want to do and that’s where 3D printers are heading. They’re working on how to interface and use those for any kind of meaningful application you might have here on Earth on a day-to-day basis.”

Patent of Chuck Hulls First 3D Printer

When patents for 3D printers that use plastic filament (the 3D printer equivalent of ink) began to expire in 2009, companies like Makerbot, which focus on making easier-to-use desktop 3D printers, began to spring up. More than half a decade later though, these desktop 3D printers are not the norm in most homes, a fact that Broer is aware of. “There was a lot of hype around 3D printers going into homes and consumers adopting it,” he confessed, “and there are consumers that use 3D printers today, but it’s still a very small group.”

There is, however, a growing number of schools though that are buying 3D printers, and subsequently educators incorporating additive manufacturing into their curriculum. In fact, some school districts, like the Montclair Public School Distract in Montclair, New Jersey, are investing heavily and buying 3D printers in every school in their respective districts.

Broer imagines a student from Montclair starting to learn 3D printing skills in their elementary school, refining those skills in middle school and high school, and teaming up with an entrepreneur to create real products once they attend college at a school like Pennsylvania State University or Montclair State University, which each recently purchased a Makerbot Innovation Lab (a lab of 30 or more networked 3D printers bought from Makerbot). “When you think about it that way, and see the journey of a student that starts really early, and that student will one day enter the workforce, you can really see the impact [that a skill learned in childhood can have on a person’s life].”

Teaching 3D printing, or any subject within a science, tech, engineering, or math (STEM) curriculum, is about more than that individual subject. “At the core of it is the problem solving aspect,” says Broer, “the collaboration between students, and learning from failure. Those are the core skills that will help these students to succeed.”

And students are using 3D printing to succeed. Five of the participants at this year’s annual White House Science Fair, including three individual inventors and two teams, 3D printed a prototype or final version of their projects. The youngest of those competitors, nine-year-old Jacob Leggette, got a printer company to donate a printer in exchange for feedback on how easy it was for a then eight-year-old to use. As 3D printers become more common on Earth, the International Space Station, and beyond, they will need to be user-friendly for makers of all ages.

3D Printing In Space

As the Star Trek Replicator challenge is drawing to a close, NASA is preparing to 3D print a winning design from the first Future Engineers challenge [in 2014], a Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool by then-high school senior Robert Hillan. “I wanted it to be as useful as possible, and I know NASA is big on saving as much space and weight as possible, so that’s why I came up with a multi-tool,” Hillan, who now studies Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alabama Huntsville, told Popular Science. His tool will be the first-ever student-designed product 3D printed aboard the International Space Station (which NASA employees refer to as “Space Station” or simply “Station), and it will be printed by the end of the year.

The ability to 3D print aboard Station is becoming more and more important to NASA. Werkheiser conservatively estimates that 40 percent of the parts and materials used during a mission will fail at some point. NASA must have backups for each and every part though, since they can’t know which will need to be replaced. “On Station we still consider the operations and the planning for that very Earth-dependent because the crew is literally hours away from Earth,” says Werkheiser.

Portal, the first 3D printer to be tested aboard the International Space Station

Made in Space

In the past, every single item that was loaded onto a rocket had to be reviewed by a NASA safety panel before it launched to Station. NASA astronauts aren’t even allowed to have forks aboard the International Space Station because one could poke an astronaut in the eye. Instead they are each given one long, skinny spoon with which to eat and they don’t get a replacement if they lose it. So spoons were, understandably, towards the top of the list of things astronauts asked to have designed and printed by NASA. “It’s creature comfort, but it’s a real-world thing,” according to Werkheiser. “You have to eat and that seems pretty important.” Now the safety panel is given a printed version of the item, and must trust that the item printed on Station will be identical to the one they inspect since they are both created from the same model. Werkheiser also made mention of one other item requested by Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore during his stay on Station—an assembled (3D printed object that must be made in multiple pieces because it is larger than the volume of the printer it is made in) backscratcher. The arid environment of Station dried out his skin and made it itchy. “Of course the first item he asked for,” she joked, “was a long, pointy object he can scratch himself with.”

Longer-term exploration missions, like those that will see humans go to Mars or an asteroid, pose a bigger problem. NASA’s exploration missions to Mars will take roughly three years to complete; it will take nine months for the crew to get to the red planet, they will spend 12 to 18 months on the surface, and then it will take another nine months to return back to Earth. If a part fails in-transit or on surface, the astronauts can’t rely on NASA to get them a replacement. Additive manufacturing is changing the way NASA operates though.

Each mission has very strict constraints on the volume and mass of objects that can be sent within the rocket. Werkheiser says a three-year exploration mission would produce approximately 700 kilograms (over 1500 pounds) of trash, including but not limited to plastic bags, foam, and food containers. That trash takes up valuable space aboard the ship and requires NASA to purchase additional fuel to overcome the rocket’s mass and get it into orbit. Rather than loading the additional mass of three years worth of spares on a ship, NASA could reduce both mass and volume of materials sent by instead loading enough filament to replace the 40 percent of parts that will statistically fail.

A 3D printer could also prevent another Apollo 13-like scenario, where something that NASA couldn’t account for goes wrong. If that case, NASA engineers could design the necessary part and remotely print it aboard the ship or surface habitat for the crew.

One other piece of technology that will ultimately cut down the launch mass is a filament recycler, which is currently being built by Tethers Unlimited. Once a job that requires a 3D printed object has been completed, that object can be melted down and re-printed as something completely different, creating a need for less filament per mission. The recycler is expected to completed and launch to Station at the end of 2017.

NASA realizes that this all seems futuristic, and lot more work needs to be done before additive manufacturing is integrated fully into NASA’s operations. Tests must be run to see if and how microgravity affects the filament during and after printing. Preliminary results look promising though, and the lack of sag caused by gravity on Earth may allow engineers to design in new ways not possible on the ground. “It sounds like we’re talking Star Trek,” admits Werkheiser, “but this is really bringing these to reality because these are technologies that are being developed on the ground now.”

Star Trek 50 logo

3D Printing In The Year 2050

One of the biggest challenges to 3D printers becoming a mainstream consumer technology is accessibility. 3D printers are not in every home and to use one requires the knowledge of CAD (computer-aided design) 3D modeling software. By the year 2050, that knowledge may not be necessary though.

“Look at the rise of on-demand media, and the rise of apps,” says Bell. “It’s clear that people want what they like when they want it at a price they can afford. I don’t think everyone out there wants a one-of-a-kind product, nor does everyone want to invest the time needed to personally design such a unique product. But when we are able to 3D print what we like, when we want it, at the quality & cost we desire, on-demand hardware will become as commonplace as on-demand media.”

Hillan agrees that the first step to making this technology more widespread is, rather than teaching everyone to design with software currently available, is creating apps that will allow anyone to be a designer. “The biggest thing that’s going to help to overcome that hurdle is…an AutoCAD software that allows you to tell the computer what you want, give it some dimensions and features you want the design to have, and the computer generates its own design of the object. That’s where I think we need to go—to go towards have computers design the objects.”

No matter how designs find their way to makers, not everything that needs to be 3D printed can be made with filament. In August 2015, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab created a 3D printer that could simultaneously print with up to ten materials at once. It also allows for electronics, such as circuits and sensors, to be embedded with an object, something that Werkheiser says is crucial for NASA’s road map to Mars. “We know that on Station about 30% of the failures have been electronic in nature,” she says, “so we’ll need to have that capability.”

As additive manufacturing grows in popularity, it will also allow for more customization of objects. Adidas, Nike, and New Balance have all experimented with 3D printing shoes or parts of shoes. Broer sees bigger potential for the future, where anyone can walk into a shoe store, have their foot measured, and walk out with a product custom-printed to fit their feet exactly.

It’s not just shoes. Wrenches, furniture, and even supercars and guns have already been 3D printed. As consumers and manufacturers gain access to newer, easier-to-use machines that can use more materials, the possibilities of what can be created are endless. “As additive manufacturing technologies advance and materials improve,” says Bell, “we’ll start to see more engineers designing to the strengths of 3D printing—more intricacies, faster design iteration, and internal features that were never possible with traditional manufacturing methods.”